Google May Get Personal

With last month's acquisition of Outride, Google may be poising itself to go forward into an area of search refinement that no major player has gone successfully before: personalized search results.

With personalized results, a person would get back a list of results that takes into account some of their demographics. For example, if you had registered yourself as a man, you might see a different set of results when searching for flowers than a woman might see.

Indeed, the above differences aren't just speculation but reality. When Direct Hit did experimental testing with personalized results back in 1999, it found that in a search for "flowers," men typically wanted sites that let them send flowers (no doubt because they've done something wrong, I always like to joke, when telling this story).

In contrast, women often wanted sites that let them order flower seeds or plants for gardening purposes (which is pretty typical of my wife, who does a lot of gardening and who also never does anything wrong necessitating that she send me flowers).

Similarly, knowing your age might let a search engine deliver more relevant results for music-related searches, while understanding where you live can be helpful, too. For example, those in the UK searching for "football" almost always have no interest in information about American Football and instead want sites that deal with what North Americans would call "soccer."

I've long thought that personalization would be the next big technological solution toward producing better web-wide search results. Basic text retrieval was greatly enhanced by the use of clickthrough measurements and link analysis. Personalization seemed about to happen in 1999. Direct Hit was poised to move forward with it, while another company in the space, GlobalBrain, was acquired by NBCi (which was then called Snap).

Sadly, nothing came of these developments. NBCi died, having never implemented the personalization parts of GlobalBrain's technology. As for Direct Hit, further testing found that users were afraid that personalized results would mean that they might "miss" something, because the technology might incorrectly presume to know what they like or dislike. Concerns over privacy are another reason why personalization hasn't made inroads with the major players.

Personalization did seem like it might get a second chance through development by two new companies that gained some attention in mid-2000: Buzz Notes and GroupFire. They aimed to follow your surfing behavior as a means to deliver personalized results.

GroupFire, a spinoff from the Xerox PARC research center, even announced partnerships with Excite@Home and Inktomi in December 2000. That was when the company renamed itself Outride. That was also the last thing we heard from Outride.

Now, Google has purchased Outride. There are no plans to introduce any components of Outride's technology overnight, but Google does expect to make use of what it has acquired, in some way.

"There's nothing immediately ready to go, and there are no concrete plans I can share with you right now," said Sergey Brin, Google's president of technology. "There are one of a dozen type of technologies we might use."

Google didn't disclose a value on the Outride acquisition, but Brin did say it was "a smaller meal' than its first acquisition of the Deja archives last February, the value of which also remains undisclosed. The rumors I'd heard was that Outride was out of money, and Brin did give the impression that it got Outride relatively inexpensively.

"Occasionally, in the current climate, there are companies that aren't able to do as well," Brin said. "They might have some valuable intellectual property, and we try to acquire those assets. It's better than either the technology disappearing or going to some other company that might not be as aggressive in developing it."

Unlike Direct Hit and Global Brain, where personalization relied on clickthrough, Outride initially developed its personalization technology to interact with a surfing companion that monitored what users viewed. That could mesh in very well with Google's popular toolbar enhancement for Internet Explorer. The company won't say exactly how big the install base is but is comfortable with charactering it in the "millions."

Easily installed, the toolbar is an easy way to access Google and some of its advanced features, such as getting the "PageRank" of a web page or finding a cached copy of a dead page. However, to generate this information for a user, the toolbar needs to send back information to Google.

It's possible that Google could examine this datastream in the future, in order to further refine results en masse for all users, via Outride's technology, or to deliver more personalized results to users who desire such customization.

This, of course, raises privacy issues. However, to date Google's been very good on this front. Anyone downloading the toolbar gets a pretty "in your face" notice that information is being sent back to Google and an option to use cut-down version of the toolbar, if they still have concerns.

It's also possible that Google could move to measure clickthrough for purposes of refining or personalizing its results. Outride's technology should be able to handle clickstream data, and Google already has in-house technology that watches about 1 percent of its results. To date, that clickstream has been used for internal quality assurance testing, rather than for refining web search results.

Overall, don't expect personalized results to appear in the immediate future at Google. Indeed, they may not come at all. However, the acquisition probably gives the concept a better shot at life than it has had for some time.


Google Toolbar

Snap Gets Popularity Results
The Search Engine Report July 6, 1999

Discusses the GlobalBrain purchase and links to two further background articles written by me on personalized search.

Xerox Pushes GroupFire Out of the Start-Up Incubator
The Street, Sept. 19, 2000

Covers the financials out how GroupFire (Outride) emerged from Xerox PARC.

Xerox spinoff touts service for better Web surfing
Network World, Jan. 31, 2000

Past article about Outride, back when it was GroupFire and open to beta testers.


Originally, as you visited sites, Buzz Notes followed you, by framing the site and keeping its own toolbar at the bottom of the screen. The idea was to build up a database of preferences, so personalization could occur. The beta test of this concept ended last year, and the company changed its focus to target the enterprise market. No new announcements have come forth since then. However, the company says it is still active and finding interest in its technology.