What Role Does Personalization Play In a World of Ambient Findability?

By Aaron Goldman, VP Marketing & Strategic Partnerships
Appeared in MediaPosts’s Search Insider

Gord Hotchkiss and I traded licks on the topic of personalization in our most recent Search Insider columns. Gord has been preaching the personalization gospel for years and I recently proclaimed myself a believer. As Gord points out, “disambiguating content” is the holy grail of search -- and that’s what personalization is all about.

Gord and I agree that personalization is one of the most important (albeit complex) aspects of search innovation and it may be many years before it’s actualized. We disagree, however, when it comes to the role of personalized search in achieving digital nirvana -- and whether a world of perfect personalization is truly utopia.

Gord sees search over time taking its “rightful place as the fundamental glue that connects us all to the highly functional, highly personal semantic Web.” In that sense, he envisions (and I’m taking some liberties here, but I think I know where Gord’s going with this) a world in which search not only helps you seek and find but act. It’s a world where search engines know who you are, what you’re looking for, and what you want to do when you find it -- and then they help you do it.

I think personalization can only get us so far down this path. This outcome can be realized only after we’ve reached a state of ambient findability - a term coined by Peter Morville, one of the founding fathers of information architecture. Morville wrote a fascinating book on this topic -- “Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become” -- that was actually first recommended to me by a Search Insider reader who responded to my column “Why Can’t Everything Be Searchable?

As the back cover explains, “this book explains the economic and cultural impact of search and wayfinding technologies at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet.”

Ambient findability is defined as the all-encompassing ability to be locatable or navigable. To Morville, ambient findability describes “a fast emerging world where we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime.”

Morville spends the first few chapters covering the variables and challenges in making this reality possible and how search is at the core of this (r)evolution. The remaining chapters are devoted to what our world will look like when we’ve achieved ambient findability -- including how marketers (among others) can capitalize on this emerging landscape.

Morville also discusses the role of personalization in a world of ambient findability. He describes personalization as “how information and objects find us.” He views it as a “strange hybrid of push and pull that dwells in the borderlands between marketing and technology.”

Morville points to tangible benefits of personalization for the user (“no more searching, the information comes to you”) and the marketer (“targeted advertising, customized messaging, differential pricing, product personalization.”)

However, Morville acknowledges that there are considerable barriers to achieving personalization perfection. Specifically

  • The ambiguity of language
  • The paradox of the active user (“It takes time to complete a profile that specifies interest with any reasonable precision. Few users have the patience.”)
  • The ambiguity of behavior (“Gifts wreak havoc on recommendation engines.”)
  • The matter of time (“It’s not enough for a computer to know you want it. It must also know when you want it”)
  • The evolution of need (“Today’s headline becomes yesterday’s news”)
  • The concerns of privacy

Morville aptly sums up the quagmire of personalization with a quote from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

However, rather than dwell on the buzzkill of personalization imperfection, Morville points to the Sociosemantic Web, which transcends personalization and truly harnesses the power of ambient findability. Once everything is findable, making it personal is only a small battle. Making it actionable is the war worth fighting.

To that end, Morville trumpets the concept of Information Interaction. As Morville observes, the boundary between information and objects is blurring more each day. He points to Google as a prime example. Google’s mission to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful” works under the guise of objects such as books, maps, and video being considered information. And, as Morville surmises, it won’t be long before RFID allows “products, possessions, pets, and people [to be] all rendered into findable objects.”

Consider what happens when objects are not only findable but can communicate with each other. Morville paints a picture of a world in which “PCs are replaced with tiny, invisible computers embedded in everyday objects.” In this environment “objects consume their own meta data.”

As an example, he cites a scenario in which the phone ringing alerts the stereo to lower the volume so that a man can take a call from his sister about their mom’s recent health issues. The man’s Web “agent” then looks up a treatment, identifies a local specialist, cross-references the doctor’s ratings and acceptable insurance plans, and books an appointment.

What’s really interesting, though, is the reservations Morville has about the utility of such a world. He asks if “this promised land of pervasive computing and ambient information is as desirable as we’re led to believe.” He wonders how humans will respond to such a wealth of information. And he suggests that, ultimately, “we will struggle to balance privacy, freedom, convenience, and safety.”

I’ll pick it up here in my next column and continue to explore life in a world of ambient findability. In the meantime, I urge everyone involved in search marketing to pick up a copy of the book and join in the conversation. To paraphrase Morville, what you’ll find by reading this book will change who you’ll become.


Copyright © 2008 Resolution Media, Inc. All rights reserved.