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Is There an 'Ick' Factor to Personalized Web Recommendations?

Updated on March 21, 2013
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We've all seen it, and likely, we've all benefitted from it: Those things that line the top of your Gmail, selling you deals on shoes right after you left a shoe-shopping website. Those ads on your social network of choice that use your personal information to give you a relevant product – like concert tickets for your favorite band. That feature on Amazon that tells you people who buy season one of The Sopranos also bought season five of The Sopranos. Personalized recommendations are everywhere now, and given how effective it is for Web advertisers, we had all better get used to it.

Opinions on Personalized Online Shopping

I personally love seeing this kind of personalized recommendation engine in action when they get it right – how else would I have known about the full box set of Harry Potter Blu-rays if it hadn't been for my personalized Amazon recommendations? (Don't judge.) Some of my friends, though, have told me they find this feature to make them somehow uneasy, as though they're being watched by some cybernetic Big Brother. For the purposes of this article, I'm going to refer to this sentiment some of my friends share as the "ick" factor: an anxious feeling that comes by instinct, not necessarily reason.

Full discretion, this Hub will be something of a defense of personalized product recommendations; I'm fascinated by this kind of innovation, and I have used a product recommendation engine for my own business with solid results. But I do want to discuss what ecommerce recommendations actually are, why they work and the line between helpful and invasive.

The Rundown on Recommendations

Essentially, a personalized recommendation engine actually learns what does and does not appeal to its customers in real time. Basing its recommendations off the products you're looking at or searching for, giving you a prompt like "People who searched for this also bought _____," these engines observe how each of the page's visitors respond to its recommendations, and adjusts its suggestions based on those findings.

This makes the on-site advertisements individualized for each customer, so the goal is that you will only be shown content relevant to you and your needs right now. Of course, sometimes this doesn't quite happen, but the longer you're on that site and the more product searches you do, because of this "learning" aspect to the engine, the more likely to be recommended the related products you were looking for. So, for instance, if you have been looking for new speakers for your stereo, you will probably see an advertisement for all-important speaker wire. Pretty straightforward, right?

The 'Ick' Factor

A friend of mine told me a story about how he was searching for information about female contraceptive methods for a paper he was writing in his master's program. For the next month, he said, his Facebook advertisements were of nothing else but discount birth control pills – my friend is an unmarried 35 year old with a bushy beard and a motorcycle. He knew how much of a proponent I am of personalized online shopping, and after we had a good laugh at his story, he told me how strangely uncomfortable this feature had made him. "It's like I'm being watched by some sort of Internet security camera every time I'm on my computer," he said.

This is exactly the "ick" factor I'm trying to describe. This kind of discomfort is common to new technologies that have gone on to become almost cultural necessities, from personal computers to cell phones. The feeling will, like these examples, almost certainly pass with time, because believe me, the efficiency and user-friendliness of ecommerce recommendations mean that the technology is here to stay.

The Defense

First off, I told him that – especially concerning social-networking sites like Facebook – he shouldn't assume that his unsecure information is ever quite private on the Internet. I understand his uneasiness, but the fact is, there isn't anyone watching his activity on the other end of a personalized recommendation engine: It is, rather, connected to a giant Customer Intelligence Engine (CIE) that takes in all kinds of information about people's searches and purchases to present you with smart, individualized suggestions that is based off a constantly evolving recommendation algorithm to figure out what works and what doesn't.

The Outcome

This really isn't invasive; it's merely trying to be smarter about the information you see, so that you don't have to see a whole bunch of ads for products you don't care about. In short, the aim here isn't to spy on you, but for you to have a personalized, immersive Web experience every time you open your browser. For advertisers, small businesses and your average Web user alike, it's a win-win: You get better webpages crafted for only you as an individual, not the lowest common denominator, and the businesses reap the benefits of more effective ad space.

Besides, if ecommerce recommendations still make you say "ick," you can always turn off those cookies or start browsing privately. Your time on the Web can be anything you want it to be, and that's exactly what a product recommendation engine has in mind.

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