Product Personalization: Good or Bad?

(cross-posted from the CQuotient blog)

Personalizing products and offers to suit customers’ unique tastes is a core element of CQuotient’s product focus. So I perked up when I started seeing negative articles on personalization over the past few weeks, triggered by a book called The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser.

In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Pariser says:

Personalization on the Web is becoming so pervasive that we may not even know what we’re missing: the views and voices that challenge our own thinking.

People love the idea of having their feelings affirmed. If you can provide that warm, comfortable sense without tipping your hand that your algorithm is pandering to people, then all the better.

Personalization channels people into feedback loops, or “filter bubbles,” of their own predilections.

The gist of his argument is that personalization technologies censor what we see. Comfort wins, diversity suffers, and you are worse off as a result.

While some of Mr. Pariser’s comments make sense to me, I do think he is painting with too broad a brush. If thenews we receive is heavily censored by personalization technologies (or anything else for that matter), it is a dangerous thing and worth being vigilant about. But I don’t see how this applies to personalizing productrecommendations.

Personalized product recommendations help you discover things you end up liking that you would have never thought of looking for. It is a great answer to the problem of finding good needles in an almost infinite haystack. Now, as my colleague Graeme Grant points out, the reality is that most forms of personalization out there start and end with addressing the customer by their first name. But personalization stalwarts like Amazon and Netflix (that’s how I stumbled on 24 :-)) have shown what’s possible.

Greg Linden, who was part of the team that created Amazon’s personalization engine, says personalization is all about serendipity

Eli has a fundamental misunderstanding of what personalization is, leading him to the wrong conclusion. The goal of personalization and recommendations is discovery. Recommendations help people find things they would have difficulty finding on their own.

If you know about something already, you use search to find it. If you don’t know something exists, you can’t search for it. And that is where recommendations and personalization come in. Recommendations and personalization enhance serendipity by surfacing useful things you might not know about.

That is the goal of Amazon’s product recommendations, to help you discover things you did not know about in Amazon’s store. It is like a knowledgeable clerk who walks you through the store, highlighting things you didn’t know about, helping you find new things you might enjoy. Recommendations enhance discovery and provide serendipity.

Greg goes on to write that news personalization also promotes serendipity and pulls people out of their comfort zone. I am not sure I agree with him on this point – I am more in agreement with Eli on the potential negative effects of personalizing news.

But when it comes to product personalization, we don’t get a filter bubble. We get a serendipity amplifier. And we can all use more serendipity in our lives.



4 thoughts on “Product Personalization: Good or Bad?”

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