Searching for Search Engine Personalization

A newly published study shows that despite a high degree of interest in Web personalization, most search engines offer few options that can be tailored to individual needs.

The ideal search engine, at least according to Google’s CTO Craig Silverstein, would resemble the computer on “Star Trek,” always responding to queries for information that precisely match the user’s needs. Today’s search engines are far from that ideal, according to the authors of “Search Engine Personalization: An Exploratory Study.”

A team of Pennsylvania State University researchers looked at 60 sites listed on SearchEngines.com. They asked three questions:

  • How many search engine Web sites offer personalization features?

  • What features can be personalized?
  • How accessible are the personalization features?

Only 13 percent of the 60 sites examined offered some level of personalization. Most of those personalization features were related to email; business and financial information; reference tool searching, such as yellow page searches; entertainment listings; sports; and news headlines.

Why the lack of personalization features? The authors note though personalization seems a simple concept, it’s difficult to implement. By its very nature, personalization means different things to different people. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Feature accessibility is another important consideration. In many cases, personalization features are available, but they’re buried deep within a site and difficult for users to locate.

Another potential roadblock is users’ willingness to reveal personal information to fine-tune personalization features. Privacy policy statements are often confusing and jargon-laden screeds that arouse suspicion in users’ minds, leading to a reluctance to share personal information.

All these factors contribute to a relative paucity of personalization features on search engine sites.

The study is rich in detailed analysis and graphs of key findings. It’s a fascinating read, though I have a couple of caveats.

First, the study was conducted in May 2001, so findings are more than two years out of date — an eternity in the search engine world. This isn’t a problem for some major players, such as Yahoo, Google, and MSN, where personalization features haven’t changed much over the past few years.

But the study includes many long-gone sites, such as Direct Hit, NBCi.com, and Northern Light. Others have changed substantially since 2001, such as HotBot and Excite.

Another quibble lies with the study’s definition of “search engine.” Though many of the acknowledged search engine leaders are included, also covered are “portal” sites that tend to be aggregators of content, such as AOL and MSN. Their search function is incidental.

Included are non-crawler-based directories, such as Yahoo and Open Directory Project (ODP); sites that really aren’t search engines at all, such as Blink.com and Octopus; and many marginal search guides, such as Aeiwi and eFind.com.

All these sites admittedly offer help to one degree or another in navigating the Web. However, referring to all as search engines seems a stretch and dilutes the conclusions’ usefulness. But limiting the study to major search engines wasn’t the point of the research, according to Amanda Spink, one of the authors.

“I think the definition used in the study was fairly broad,” she wrote in an email. “It was really an exploratory study of personalization in relation to the Web and search engines.” The original analysis was done by students who have since graduated, but Spink says she will probably continue the work once she settles at her new position at the University of Pittsburgh.

Quibbles aside, “Search Engine Personalization” offers an interesting, systematic analysis of the state of personalization in Web search. It’s a useful examination of an important feature set of search engines and how personalization may — or may not — help Web searchers.

About the Authors of Search Engine Personalization

Amanda Spink and C. Lee Giles are from the School of Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University. Yashmeet Khopkar, Prital Shah, C. Lee Giles, and Sandip Debnath are from Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

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