Why personalization is hard (and why you need to aggregate.)

zite

 

Since it launched, Zite has been one of my favorite apps. Keying off my Twitter stream the product does an absolutely amazing job of finding stories I am 1) interested in; 2) had not seen already; 3) from sources I was unlikely to stumble across.

That sort of personalization – saving time by accurately filtering information –  is of huge value to readers. If you can reduce the number of clicks (the currency of the web) needed to find stories of interest, I am likely to return. No surprise that most media organizations have recommended story lists on their websites.

But in many cases these lists are of minimal value. Browsing Salon.com just now – five of the suggested stories were more than four months old. And I was reading about the Affordable Health Care Act.

The challenge is, even the most prolific news sites (say the NYT) only publish 1000 – 1500 stories daily. Even over a week or a month, there is not enough variety to make an effective recommendation in every case. So, older or less relevant stories are surfaced. But as a pure aggregator Zite is not restricted to a single news source. A billion new pages are added to the world wide web daily. That is more than enough to recommend 50 – 100 highly relevant stories to me each day.

Doing some news math, the filtering value (or number of potential clicks saved) to the user is not comparable:

Zite: (one billion possible stories / 100 filtered stories) = 10,000,000 clicks saved.
News site: (one thousand possible stories / 10 filtered stories) = 100 clicks saved.

Yes, that is a farcical equation and the news site still returns a positive value — but not enough to be competitive.

For news publishers, there are three ways to improve our odds: 1) Improve the algorithms to eliminate outdated or irrelevant articles; 2) Reach outside your own CMS and aggregate stores from other sources; 3) Start focusing your metrics less on raw page views, and more on efficiency and value created for the reader ‘clicks saved.’ (See Cory Bergman’s ‘time saved’ take on this earlier this year.)

Yes, those aggregated links will need to be highly relevant (see improve the algorithm above) and they will lead visitors away from your site. But, all Zite does is send me away. And yet I return every day.