Website Personalization: What Is It and What Are the Options?

Paul Boag

Website Personalization can cause a lot of confusion. It comes in many forms, and not all of them are appropriate for every site. Do not insist on personalization unless you have a clear idea of what you mean and what benefits you expect.

So you are thinking of implementing some form of website personalization? Either that or you have a client requesting you add that functionality to a site. But what is personalization really, and does it make good business sense?

In truth, many website owners rush into website personalization before they have more fundamental building blocks in place. Before anybody looks at personalizing the user experience, they first need to ensure that experience is accessible, relevant and usable. Only then should you start to personalize what you deliver to users.

Website personalization shown in context of other priorities
Before we start to worry about website personalization, we first need to ensure the basics are in place.

Don’t get me wrong; website personalization is incredibly powerful especially on Ecommerce sites. There are good reasons why Amazon has invested so heavily in it. But just because Amazon does personalization doesn’t mean your website should too.

Example of website personalization on Amazon
People request website personalization after seeing Amazon. They don’t understand that systems like Amazon are hugely expensive and don’t always work effectively on other sites.

Then there is the considerable investment in implementing the kind of website personalization found on sites like Amazon. That is not the kind of feature request you merely tag on to a redesign project. It will need a well-considered business case for it.

In reality, most requests for website personalization are ill-informed and ill-advised. In fact, in many cases, people are not even clear what they mean by personalization.

So with that in mind, let’s look at seven types of personalization and their pros and cons. In doing so, let us look beyond the Amazon style of website personalization and consider the many other options available to us. Let’s broaden our definition of what website personalization means, as there are options available that are in many cases more effective and cheaper.

Take for example personalizing the experience through email and social media.

Email and Social Media Personalization

There are many scenarios where a user identifies themselves to an organization. That is where they signup for some form of notification (e.g., a newsletter) or follow the organization via a social media channel.

When a user identifies themselves, they often provide valuable information about themselves and their needs. That allows targeted communication with them using segmentation. For example, this might occur through targeted email campaigns or Facebook advertising.

Because we know about the user, we can personalize the content we send them to their individual needs.

Facebook Ad targetting
When users follow you on a social network this allows you to target them based on their interests and demographics.

This type of personalization is easy to implement and involves typically little technical investment because it relies on third-party systems like Facebook or MailChimp.

That said, the degree of personalization is constrained by the available data on users. For example, a mailing list is of little use if all you have is somebodies email address.

That is why this approach works better when supported by some form of customer relationship system that includes richer data on users.

The downside of this approach to personalization is that it requires organizations to be continually creating new content to engage with the segments they build. That might be new social media content or new email updates. Whatever the case, this is time-consuming.

Campaign Based Website Personalization

Campaign personalization is a term used to describe website content personalized to support online and offline campaigns.

For example, imagine you were sending a direct mail campaign. Instead of including your generic website URL in the literature you send out, you would provide a unique website address directing users to a customized landing page. The website landing page can then be heavily tailored to the audience and messaging of the campaign.

You can use these personalized landing pages for everything from referring websites to email campaigns targeting a specific sector. In every case the principle is the same, customize the experience based on where users are coming from.

Example of how Obama campaign targeted redit users
The Obama campaign used targeted landing pages to reach out to specific groups such as Reddit users.

This form of website personalization is incredibly useful because it provides users with a tightly integrated experience from initial contact to completing a call to action. That makes them ideally suited for improving site conversion.

What is more, they involve no additional technical development. In most cases, we can easily create this kind of landing page within your average content management system.

However, they are limited, and time-consuming to create. We need to design each landing page individually, and the scope of each page is limited to a small number of very similar campaigns.

Website Personalization Using Geography

Geographical personalization customizes content based on the geographic region that a user is in. For example, you may choose to redirect users from India to a page specifically designed for an Indian audience.

Geographical personalization can also be used to offer translations of content or customize the content that appears on existing pages. Of course, this kind of translation can be time-consuming and expensive to produce.

Also, just because somebody appears to be accessing a website from a particular country does not mean they are based there. People travel, and many organizations route traffic through different countries. If a user is misidentified as being from a particular geographical region, it can be hard for them to get back to the correct country content.

That said, geographical personalization is relatively easy to implement and can be a powerful way of attracting international audiences, and showing the organization’s commitment to them.

IBM website personalization via country
It is common for larger companies to heavily personalize website content based on the location of the visitor.

Website Personalization Based on IP

IP customization attempts to recognize the user through their IP address. Although most users access the web via an ISP, we can identify corporate and institutional users from their IP address. In other words, it is possible to know if a user is likely to come from a particular company or a competitor.

Knowing where a user comes from allows the customization of content to reflect their needs, or personalize the messaging on the site. Typically this might involve changing homepage content to address the company you are targeting directly.

Optimizely landing page targeting specific company.
Optimizely successfully targeted large corporates with customized landing pages.

Unfortunately, like geographical personalization, IP addresses can be misleading. Many IP addresses are not reflective of the company for which the user works. Also if a user works away from the office, there is no way to identify them as an employee.

IP lookup can also cause performance issues as it relies on third-party services. That can negatively affect the user experience.

Also, you will need to create personalized content for each company you wish to target.

That said, a personalized experience based on company IP can create a delightful, engaging and personal experience. Content can be more personalized, and because this kind of personalization is rare, it can make a company stand out from the crowd.

Time-Based Personalization

Another way that companies can personalize the experience on a website is to reflect either the time of day or time of year. Although this may not be as highly personalized as some of the other techniques discussed in this post, it can still be useful if done right.

You can use time-based personalization as an opportunity to empathize with users by making educated guesses about their situation based on time. For example, are they accessing the site late at night or on a public holiday? If so, perhaps we can guess they are working into the evening or on their day off.

Examples of website personalization based on time of day or year
Personalizing the experience based on time of day or of year can prove effective.

Of course, the downside of this approach is that this involves customization based on geography too. What is late at night for one user, will be the morning for another one in a different country.

Also, your educated guesses about user behavior can be wrong, and that can undermine a connection with users, rather than build it up.

Nevertheless, if you get it right, it can resonate with users in a way that ‘recommended products’ will not.

Website Personalization Using Account Information

The most common form of personalization is when a user can personalize content once they have created an account. By logging in the user identifies themselves and so content and functionality can then be tailored around their needs. That typically involves adding or removing content modules or customizing quick links to functionality they regularly access.

The obvious downside of this approach is that it requires a user to create an account, something that they are often unwilling to do unless the site is one they are using on a regular basis.

It is possible to do account customization without a user logging in by relying on cookies. However, users often clear cookies and so any customization options will be lost.

Also, allowing a user to personalize a site to their needs is not always that useful depending on the website. Other than providing shortcuts to relevant content (something that could be achieved just as easily by bookmarking a page) there is often little benefit to end users of having an account.

Finally, site personalization based on account creation is also a substantial piece of technical work and often involves integration into other systems.

In short, account based personalization is better used for web apps than it is for content heavy or e-commerce sites.

Example of personalization within Coschedule
Web Apps like Coschedule make extensive use of account based personalization. However, it makes little sense for other sites unless they are being used regularly.

Related content personalization is something most of us are aware of from using Amazon. It refers to recommendations based on what content you have previously viewed and the behavior of other users.

Amazon has spent millions on the creation of their content matching algorithm, and it is only because of their scale that this kind of investment could be justified. Yes, some third party Ecommerce platforms offer similar functionality, but the quality of results returned is often mixed.

However, not all related content personalization needs to be as sophisticated as Amazon. For example, it is possible to use data to match associated posts on a blog. In other words, we could create relationships between articles based on user behavior. If somebody liked a post they might like other posts that previous users have read.

An even simpler approach would be to simply manually identify the relationship between articles using tags or categories. No fancy algorithm required!

BBC News website personalization.
The BBC News website can recommend content to readers based on related news stories.

This basic form of related content personalization can be a useful way of reducing bounce rates and keeping users engaged. However, ensuring good recommendations can prove time-consuming as content will need to be carefully tagged. Alternatively, it will require significant technical investment to provide a good matching algorithm.

That said, with the continual improvement of machine learning and big data, this will probably prove more cost effective in the future. It is indeed an area to keep an eye on.

A Complicated Area

This post is far from a comprehensive analysis of the personalization options and I have made many generalizations in order to keep things simple. But hopefully, it has shown you that personalization is a broad topic with many approaches that can be adopted.

The key takeaway is that personalization is a complex area and not something we can easily plug into our websites. It can prove expensive, and so there needs to make sure you have a clear idea of how it will generate a return for your business.

In short, make sure you have done everything else you can before running headlong into the world of website personalization.