We are in the age of the personalised or contextual web. This opens up many opportunities for websites, but there are also dangers.
If you’ve never heard of the ‘contextual web’ it’s basically where a website’s content, and even design, are created dynamically based on the browsing habits and interests of the person using the website.
For example, keyword research can look at the search terms the target visitor is using to find information, and create web pages with these keywords. The design of the website can then reflect the demographic of the target audience. An older more conservative visitor may be interested in content and design that communicates traditional values. A younger, more hip audience may be attracted to a more brash and informal tone.
People who don’t know what they are looking for
Most website with keywords and a target audience cater for people who know what they are looking for. What about the people who do not know what they are looking for? Amazon music knows what music their users play, then suggests music based on their choice of bands or genres of music. Listeners are introduced to bands and songs new to them which they may not have discovered on their own using conventional searches. In some small way, Amazon music understands its listeners and their needs. Amazon proactively gives information it thinks that we want.
There are other services that try to personalise content in this way. Google has access to the websites that people visit, and uses this and a person’s search history to deliver personalised content on its Google Now app.
Knowing what a person wants can enrich their experience
The concept of the contextual web is dependent on storing knowledge about user’s preferences, such as the websites they visit, the Facebook pages they like and their shopping habits. Location information from a user’s phone can also be utilised. Information can be used in many useful ways. For example, you may be walking down a city street and, when it gets near to lunchtime, your phone or smart watch will suggest restaurants to visit. If your favourite food is Chinese, then top of the recommendations will be Chinese restaurants. If the restaurant is not within walking distant, then the nearest Uber car will be highlighted.
The contextual web means that shopping websites can recommend just the products that they know you are interested in. Amazon does this very well in their recommendations section. Video streaming service Netflix also has a similar system where it recommends films and programs you may like based on what you’ve already watched, or added to your watch list.
It can be argued that the contextual web enriches a person’s experience.
The downside to the contextual web is lack of privacy. Do you want apps and websites to know your personal details, and do you want businesses to share their data on you? If a web developer can access the information that Google has on their visitors, then it makes it easier to personalise web page content for users. If that information includes a history of visiting adult sites, then visitors may not want that knowledge to influence what they see on your website!
The other drawback to the personalised web experience is that it can narrow people’s vision by excluding information that the algorithms think will not interest you.
For example, if news feeds are personalised then news stories tailored to a person’s specific interests could exclude items that present the opposite picture. Someone who is for capital punishment may only see news stories that are pro capital punishment, and not be exposed to stories with arguments against. Critical thinking skills are based on considering all sides of an issue. If all sides are not seen, then biases are confirmed and not challenged. This may not be good for society.
The contextual web can be a great asset for web developers wanting to personalise their websites for visitors, but the negative side needs to be taken into account as well.