What is Personalisation?
Without personalisation, the Web is a ‘static’ environment where every user is presented with the same
content and users will select which content to view based on navigation and search results. As a result without
personalisation a web experience is predominantly a ‘pull’ relationship that a user has with content.
Personalisation changes this relationship into an environment where the web assists the user in their voyage
of discovery by pushing content to the forefront in a manner that is specific to their 'journey' or 'interest'. The
whole purpose of personalisation is to improve the users experience.
The background to personalisation
'Personalisation' is not a new term. It originally became popular in the mid 1990’s with products such as ATG
and Broadvision as a means of elevating a website to a level of functionality that enhances the visitor
experience. However, the first time around – the complexity involved in deploying such technologies was such
that only the ‘richest’ websites could afford to deploy and maintain the technologies required.
The current resurgence of personalisation is due to two main factors;
1. The cost of deploying it has dropped dramatically – and it has become easier to maintain as an
ongoing website service. Gone are the days where to have personalisation required doubling the web
team and 6 or 7 figure investments.
2. There is now so much content available, that companies are struggling to get their visitors to see the
correct content. Arguably the widespread use of WCMS solutions has exacerbated this situation as
they have empowered non technical staff to be able to produce ever increasing amounts of content in
a way that was not possible ten years ago – whilst there are many upsides to WCMS – one of the
downsides is that websites can potentially be a lot larger than they were when they were managed by
technical staff – which in turn reduces the ability of navigation and search alone to guide users to the
As with many IT definitions – as the use of personalisation spreads, the term has been misused and as a
result confusion has grown around exactly what personalisation is. As a result of this confusion,
personalisation is now routinely used for everything from 'my favourite links', to targeted information driven by
complex and sophisticated business rules.
You can add to this the fact that personalisation itself as a term is not exempt from an ‘evolution’ in its
interpretation as the web environment matures. As vendors provide more and more functionality under the
guise of personalisation and as Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 force concepts around who gets to see what to marry
with a personalised experience – it becomes difficult to encapsulate personalisation to mean one thing.
Before we begin to look at the ways personalisation is implemented, it’s important to understand the
fundamental difference between a personalised website and a non-personalised website.
A non personalised website typically presents the same content to all users regardless of e.g. profile,
personal preferences and clicking behaviour – as such it could be said to be a static experience in that all
users get the same. Such web experiences rely on navigation and search for users to extract information from
the site. It can be argued that such websites are ‘pull oriented’ as it requires the visitor to select an item before
it is presented to them. Equally if they use the search facility they are ‘pulling’ content based on their own
provided search criteria.
A personalised website is in many ways the exact opposite. True – it will still have a navigation structure for
users to be able to move around the website – and true it will still usually have a search facility for users to
‘pull’ content – but the big difference is that the experience can be changed to be different to the visitor based
on a number of factors. It can be argued therefore that a personalised website is ‘push’ oriented – as content
is far more controlled and can be specifically targeted at a visitor rather than relying on them finding it.
Types of Personalisation
The two main types of personalisation available today break down into Explicit personalisation and Implicit
Explicit Personalisation in summary is where a visitor elects a profile – or is given a profile that
determines they will see content in a manner that is specific to their requirements or choices.
Implicit Personalisation in summary is where the behaviour of a user as they navigate a website is
monitored / tracked and content is presented to them based on a business logic that interprets their
clicking pattern into a most appropriate delivery of content (to match the users behaviour).
A profile is a setting or collection of settings that tell a website to give a defined set of pages (or objects or
applications) to a visitor based on the fact that we know who they are. Once we (as the website owner) know
who they are – we can either allow them to make their own choices as to what they would like to see (Passive
Explicit Personalisation) – or allocate content choices based on a logic layer that we have applied as
appropriate to that profile for that given user (Segmented Explicit Personalisation).
Passive Explicit Personalisation (PEP)
Any situation in which the end user is given the capability to customise / tailor / select the features (such as
pages, applications, services) provided, or how information is delivered to them can be considered to be a
Passive Explicit experience – its passive in the sense they may or may not elect to personalise their view.
Typical examples of such aspects could be ‘my favourite links’, or whether or not to see ‘recently visited
pages’ – or whether to see the local weather content – Yahoo being one of the earliest pioneers of this type of
PEP is often the easiest type of personalisation to deploy – as from a web administration point of view the user
is essentially given the same view as everyone else to start with – but then creates their own preferences and
stores them against a log in or cookie. In that sense the user is anonymous. The administrator simply
determines which aspects will be presented as options for the visitor to select or deselect. The PEP
experience can be something that is tailored afresh every time a user visits a site – but in most cases its
‘stored’ against a cookie or a user name and password.
PEP may have been ‘bleeding edge’ and attractive to a visitor five years ago – but its popularity peaked and
has declined in many cases due to the fact that users have to remember too many log ins and as a result don’t
go back to their logged in profile but simply use the default for speed – or put another way the benefits fail to
excite the user to the point they are willing to return to the profile they have created. It could be argued this is a
failure on the part of the website owner to make the PEP experience compelling enough – or it could just
reflect the generic ‘fickleness’ of a web audience.
Segmented Explicit Personalisation (SEP)
Any situation where a user is given a profile – and the profile is used to determine what content will be shown
to them would come under the banner of Segmented Explicit Personalisation. It is referred to as Segmentation
– based on the fact that content is being ‘segmented’ and allocated to users or groups of users – but in
essence its major difference from PEP is that the choice of content presented is made by the website owner
and not the visitor.
For websites that have a lot of content, SEP can often be one of the most effective ways of overcoming
information overload. Instead of presenting the entire entire content repository to them and relying on them
searching or navigating to the correct content, profiles can be created for groups or users that remove content
that is not appropriate to their needs and only display relevant information. They can still navigate once they
are logged in to their profile and pull content in the traditional way – but the ‘on screen real estate’ can be
packed with aspects that are relevant to their needs.
The creation of SEPs also allows for content to be targeted to user groups from a Marketing perspective. If I
know that a visitor has a certain profile then I can display e.g. banner adverts that are targeted to that profile. If
there are ‘offers’ for a certain product that I wish to be seen, then these can be channelled to the appropriate
SEP is also one of the most effective ways to generate an Extranet environment. In the same way that I can
use a profile to target content to a visitor, I can also use it to deny access to a visitor. In this way e.g. Profile A
might see designated sections, pages, services within a website – whereas Profile B might see totally different
SEP is certainly more involved to administer than PEP – first and foremost because the moment you create a
managed profile, you as the website owner are making assumptions about which content to present to which
user or profile. If you get this right it can be a very powerful way of separating your audience and ensuring that
the most appropriate content is displayed. If you get it wrong you could have sensitive content in the wrong
hands – or a user experience that turns visitors away.
It would be true to say that for this reason – the number of SEP profiles created by most customers deploying
this type of personalisation is usually small to start with and can be as simple as public facing content profile
and an extranet profile that gives access to less public content.
With both Segmented and Passive Explicit Personalisation – the very fact that a user is having to provide
details about themselves (to be able to determine the most appropriate content or provide a username against
which to store the personalised view) becomes often one of the biggest reasons for rejection on the part of the
user. There is an ever growing ‘swell’ of users reluctant to provide personal details, which makes it hard to use
explicit personalisation in certain situations..
There are companies trying to set themselves up as a ‘profile’ centre for users – on the basis they give their
demographic details once and then refer to this when requesting a login profile to another website – but this
has so far yet to make inroads to the vast majority of Internet users – which it would need to do to become a
One option involves using a combination of implicit (tracked) personalisation together with explicit to log users
into a segmented (AEP) experience without them giving personal details which will be covered in Implicit
Implicit Personalisation could be seen as the ‘goal’ of every personalised website – in that unlike its
counterpart (Explicit Personalisation), Implicit does not require a user to log in or provide any details.
Sometimes called ‘Behavioural Tracking’, the concept behind Implicit Personalisation is that users visit a
website and their clicking activity is then monitored and tracked. Each incremental click is then used to
determine what content to show the user surrounding the item they selected. Amazon was one of the early
pioneers of this sort of tracking – and if you visit their site and select a book or film, it tells you that other
people that looked at the item you are looking at also looked at these other items.
Call it a cross sell – or a soft sell – what implicit personalisation allows you to do is follow the behaviour of your
visitor and then based on where they go in the site alter the presented content to ever increasingly mirror their
clicking activity. Furthermore – implicit personalisation can be used to not only filter the display of content at
the web page level, it can be used to filter the content displayed from other applications. In this way third party
content sources rather than being static displays can adapt to display content that reflects the continued
journey of a user through a site.
Banner adverts can be rotated to reflect the clicking behaviour of a user and display the adverts that are most
appropriate to the user. A visitor could be coming to your website having clicked on an advert on another
website and could be logged on to a segmented explicit experience under the guise of a campaign ID or an
advert source and then have them implicitly managed through the rest of the experience.
Underlying what can be an endless list of examples of how implicit personalisation can be used is a business
logic layer – and it would be fair to say that of all the types of personalisation that exist, implicit is the most
involved to implement. You need to have a very good understanding of your visitor paths, and a clear
understanding of what content you would like to drive to what path under which circumstances. Typically this is
not something that is available to most web sites – so often implicit can only be deployed after a defined