INTERNAUT

A gradual approach helps Web sites get personal with visitors

Shawn P. McCarthy

Have you experienced gradual personalization? No, it's nothing romantic. It's a technology trend: persuading your agency's Web site visitors to share information with you so you can build customized page views for them.

Personalized entry pages for leading Web portals have been around for several years. Instead of seeing a generic front page, visitors select only the types of news they want to see, such as weather, sports scores and so on. Visitors are given a cookie, which tells the Web site what their settings are each time they come back. Active server pages change the visitor's page view based on the cookie, drawing data and page pointers from appropriate catalogs.

The difficult part of personalization is that visitors hesitate to share too much information about themselves. If a Web site asks for a name, e-mail address and ZIP code all at the same time, the spam-weary often flee.

Getting to know you

Some sites are switching to a more gradual personalization effort. They patiently ask for the data in stages over several visits. As trust builds, more information usually flows.

Government agencies have been slow to adopt personalization, partly because of the time and money it takes to set it up, and partly because of privacy concerns. But a few government sites have taken the plunge.

I found a very simple but effective customization interface at the NASA Acquisition Internet Service site, at nais.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/customize_bizop.cgi. Vendors tell the NAIS server what types of business opportunities they want to track, and it provides the latest lists on each subsequent visit.

Visitors don't even need to enter their real names. This simple approach helps them rapidly find what they need and learn what's new.

Any agency that serves blocks of visitors who seek information by region, item or department can save money by letting them create custom views. Such personalization lowers the time spent answering phone calls and e-mail from people who can't find information on the site or can't remember where they found it last time they visited.

If you're willing to build customized page views so visitors can see what's new in the databases each time they visit, it's worth studying how some sites have built up trust with visitors to get them to use cookies to obtain the information they want.

Take a lesson from some of the portals that gradually escalate the personalization settings'for example, www.excite.com.

See the edit buttons at the top of some columns? They let visitors customize just that portion of the view without walking through a sign-up screen. Once a visitor makes an edit to just one part of the view, a cookie is placed and new features can be added if and when the visitor wants them.

Start simple if you decide to go with customized views. Ask a basic question about, say, the person's ZIP code. Then offer data associated with the ZIP code. From that initial result, you can customize further. Visitors are often willing to trade information to get information.

They might share an e-mail address to get a newsletter. Later they might share more personal data to augment or filter the contents of the newsletter.

For a good example of customizable e-mail news, visit the National Science Foundation's Custom News Service, at www.nsf.gov/home/cns/start.htm.

The types of information you collect and how you use it should be covered in your site's posted privacy policy.

If you want personalize your Web site, here are two companies that can help:

' Net Perceptions Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn., at www.netperceptions.com/home, recently developed applications for the Agriculture Department's graduate school.

' LikeMinds from Andromedia Inc. of San Francisco, at www.andromedia.com, coordinates information recommendations, personally relevant content and targeted promotions. The company, which recently announced plans to merge with another San Francisco company, Macromedia Inc., also sells a personalization server package.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos.com.

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