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Adaptive websites and presence awareness

Fri 26 Nov 2004, 08:28 PM

by Ben Langhinrichs
I have long been intrigued by the concept of adaptive websites and adaptive applications.  This concept seems to have been popularized based on a paper called Adaptive Web Sites - An AI Challenge, which has a number of wide ranging goals, but while there is a lot of interest and a fair number of product offerings, it feels like most are focused pretty narrowly on
web sites that automatically improve their organization and presentation by learning from user access patterns.
       - Adaptive Web SitesThe problem with that focus, in my opinion, is that you don't get a chance to capture the needs of the visitor until they have accessed a few pages, and by then you may have lost them.  Now, in some organizations, this doesn't matter, since the adaptive website is aimed toward an authenticated user.  In that case, it is quite likely the website has a "captive audience".  For example, a college website could adapt to meet the "user access pattern" of a student, because they know which student it is and can track across sessions.  IBM's Partnerworld could track a partner and adapt (although they don't), so that if I always head for the downloads, those could become more prominent, but again, they would know who I am so they could make educated guesses based on my profile.

Since ours is a sales organization visited by many anonymous visitors, and since nobody authenticates, it might seem that we couldn't be adaptive, or at least not beyond a single session.  The trouble is, many users may not stay for many pages, so we don't have as many chances to adapt, and we might need want to tailor their very first page visit.

This is where presence awareness comes in.  I don't mean presence awareness in the limited sense that is used by instant messaging, but the bigger presence awareness provided by CGI - knowing where someone might be going by where they have been and who they appear to be.  We implemented a certain level of this on the Genii website a while ago, as I mentioned in Forum and Help queries back in August.  Our implementation is called Focus topics, wherein awareness of either the search term used to find a web or a specific off-site reference to our products changes the page so that it highlights topics which may be of specific use to that user.  If you search on "dynamic tables for Notes" in a search engine, and you find a reference to our Midas Rich Text LSX and go to that page, the focus topic on the left section will be on dynamic tables.  This is a form of presence awareness that can track the very first page you see.

Another form of presence awareness that we don't currently use, but have considered, is awareness of your country of origin.  Since we get hits from visitors all over the world, we could tailor some content to the country or region.  For example, visitors from China might be interested in a sample using Search and Replace technology that featured Chinese text, while those from Russia might be interested in Cyrillic samples.  Besides samples, it is possible that our "Focus on Belgium" and "Focus on Australia" type pages on the front page could be adapted to mention specific customers in different regions, so a Brazilian visitor might see a "Focus on South America", while a visitor from the United Arab Emirates might see a "Focus on the Mid-East".

Another form of presence awareness might have to do with the operating system or browser being used.  If a visitor is using Firefox, it might be good if there were an on-line sample of HTML generation that reassured them that the HTML generated would work with Firefox.  A Linux user might want to know our plans for Linux versions.  

None of these different alterations should predominate the webpage.  There is always more we don't know than that we do know about the visitor, but if any should either guide or soothe a visitor, the eventual sale is more likely.  I also want to be clear that these are not new inventions of mine.  Plenty of other websites track the referrer page or search terms, but I'm not sure how often Notes/Domino ISVs or other smaller software vendors take advantage of these techniques.  If anybody is interested, I'd be happy to share how we do it in a future post.  I'd also be happy to hear any suggestions for better ways to use presence awareness to customize and better the user experience.

Copyright 2004 Genii Software Ltd.

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