Category Archives: Search Personalization

Will search personalization transform search engines from keyword-driven finders of information to sources of recommendations that attempt to understand and match the intent behind searches?

Google’s User Profile Personalization and Google Plus

A newly published patent application from Google describes how a combination of different types of Google generated profiles associated with a searcher might influence the results that they see. The description in the patent filing is substantially the same as some I’ve written about in the past involving personalization from Google, in my 2006 post Google Personalization Methods.

But I couldn’t help but think of the role that Google Plus might play in personalized search from Google as well, while reading through the patent. Is information from my Google Plus profile used in personalization? Is other Google Plus information part of personalized search?

My Google Plus profile, including information about where I work, where I live, and whom I'm employed by.

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What Personalization Means to Search

I originally wrote the following article a couple of years ago for publication at Website Magazine. It presents one way of thinking about the evolution of search and search engines, and I thought it might be a good idea to share it here as well. I’ve added a few very minor updates to the article.

Search engines have come a long way since their modest beginnings — although you may not have noticed. The major engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing guard their search secrets closely, so one can never be absolutely certain how they are operating. But they are evolving, and personalization seems to be the wave of the future.

Search engines have already developed through two major stages and now may be on the verge of a third generation. The first stage was based simply on matching keywords in documents — where the same results were shown to all searchers, regardless of who they were or their original search intentions. The second stage, where we may be now, examines how searchers interact with the search engine to predict their intent. Finally, the third stage will attempt to consider the actual interests of searchers then recommend pages accordingly.

Stage One- Keyword Matching

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Predictive Search Query Suggestions

When you start typing a query into a search box at many search engines, you may see a dropdown appear under the search box which offers selectable suggestions for query terms even before you may have finished typing. The suggestions may also provide alternative URLs for web pages if you are typing the address of a web page into the search box.

We’ve seen a few patent filings in the past that describe this kind of behavior, but they haven’t gone into a lot of detail about how those specific suggestions might have been chosen.

A patent application published by Google this week gives us a little more insight into the search suggestions that it offers. Interestingly, it’s possible that the query suggestions that I see might be different than the ones that you may be offered, based upon things such as whether or not either of us:

  • Is using a mobile device to connect to the search engine or a desktop computer
  • Might be identifiable as a member of a group profile interested in certain topics or categories of sites
  • Has a search history that the search engine can use to bias those suggestions towards something we are interested in
  • Are viewing a specific page which has a specific profile attached to it, and are using a search toolbar for our search
  • May be connecting to the Web at different connection speeds, or are using different connection types
  • Could have set our browsing preferences differently in our browser or through the search engine for things such as preferred language
  • Others

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Google Patent Application on How Users Can Add Pages to Search Results

In November of 2009, Google announced changes to the way people search when logged into their Google Accounts, in an Official Google Blog post titled SearchWiki: make search your own.

The changes allowed searchers to move search results up in rankings that they see when searching for specific queries, suggest new pages for searches for queries, leave notes on pages that show up in search results, remove results from search result listings, and see notes on search results that others have left.

If you regularly log into Google to search or access Google’s Gmail and you stay logged in to your Google Account while you search and select pages and browse other pages on the Web, chances are that you’ll see search results personalized for you by Google based upon those pages that you’ve selected from search results, pages that you’ve browsed, and pages that you’ve bookmarked.

Using Searchwiki means that you can personalize your search results even more, for specific queries, making it easier for you to refind pages that you’ve found before, or include pages in a specific search result that you want to return to on a regular basis. You can also remove pages that you don’t want to see in those search results.

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Understanding Intentions and Microsoft Search Personalization

A woman says to a man, “It’s cold in here.” The man puts his arms around her and holds her. He could have turned up a thermostat, or brought her a sweater, or asked her if she wanted to go somewhere warmer. But imagine that the man and woman are in a relationship and have had that conversation a number of times in the past, and the intention behind the words was easily understood by both.

We can sometimes understand the intent behind certain words even though the words don’t actually match up well with the intentions of the people who voice them, though the intentions behind words can be difficult things to understand. Sometimes nonverbal communication that accompanies words can be helpful in interpreting them, though humans aren’t necessarily that good at reading nonverbal communication either.

Sometimes past experience can be informative in understanding what certain words might mean, like the man and woman in my example above.

If human beings can grow easily confused about the intentions behind words, how well can a computer understand the intent behind a handful or less words in a query at a search engine?

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Would You Give A Search Engine a 3D Model of Your Body?

You go to the store, and find the perfect pair of shoes, except that they don’t have them in your size, or in the color that you want.

You shop online, and try to find a pair of pants and a shirt that match, except that it’s hard to tell how they will look together.

Can a search engine help you make shopping easier?

Imagine a different scenerio, now…

You go to a facility to create a 3-dimensional scan of your body which you can then upload to a clothing search engine and recommendation system. Or you enter detailed body measurements into that search and recommendation system.

You create a user profile that details things such as your skin color, eye color, hair style/color, whether or not you wear glasses, and other details about your appearance.

In addition to this personal information, you can also add non-personal information, such as the type or color of clothing you are presently looking for. Other details can be entered, such as your location, the season of the year, your hairstyle, where you are planning to go while wearing the clothes you are looking for, such as a business meeting or a restaurant or night club.

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Google Profile Information and Partner Content Providers: Should there be Disclosure?

Preferred Location Gathering

When you search for where a movie might be showing near you, or what the weather might be like in your neighborhood, or other kinds of information where it might be helpful if the search engine knew your location, or a location that you might prefer to see results from, a search engine like Google might try to identify a preferred location from your searches.

For example, if I search for a specific movie that is showing at movie theatres, Google might ask for my zip code to provide me with location information about where it is playing:

screenshot of movie text box where a zip code could be entered

The next time that I perform that search, I’m not shown a text box where I can enter my zip code.

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How Google Might Personalize Search Results Outside of Personalized Search

Not long ago, during a search at Google, a message at the top of the search results told me that my results were,

“Customized based on recent search activity.”

A link next to that message provided more information, telling me that if I signed into my Google Account, I might see “even more relevant, useful results,” based upon my “web history.”

During another recent search, a similar message appeared telling me that my results were based upon my location, with the results biased towards Philadelphia, which isn’t too far away.

I’ve been wondering since what it is that Google is considering when it makes changes to my search results like that. The major commercial search engines act as an index to the Web to many people who rely upon them when looking for information online.

Imagine an index that changes for every searcher.

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