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A Conversation With Google's Personalization Guru

Push search will let Google learn what you might want to look for and push it in your direction through RSS feeds and Google gadgets.

J. Nicholas Hoover

June 15, 2007

3 Min Read

Personalization is a hit at Google, and iGoogle, a personalized search home page, is the company's fastest-growing product by number of new users. That makes Sep Kamvar, Google's technical lead for personalization, a busy man.

Kamvar's days are mostly spent on technical issues, code reviews, and managing the technical team. What's left over goes into down-and-dirty product development, particularly -- at least these days -- into improving Google's personalized home page product, iGoogle. What to do with the 20% of time that Google employees dedicate to pet projects? You're looking at it. "I'm lucky in that my 20% time is my 100% time," he says.

Kamvar entered grad school at Stanford University just after Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Before dropping out to start his own personalized search company, which was later acquired by Google, he helped develop algorithms that would help personalize search and calculate member reputation in peer-to-peer networks. Kamvar's aim these days is "getting you the information you want without you having to do as much work."

IGoogle is just one example of what Kamvar calls "push search," the notion that Google can learn what you might want to look for and push it in your direction through RSS feeds and Google gadgets, little boxes of information that might give users a view of their e-mail in-box or local weather. Gadgets are another indication iGoogle is a hit: At last count, the public creates 9,000 of them daily.

An innovative part of iGoogle is the concept of magic tabs, specialized content tabs Googlers can add to their iGoogle pages. The idea is that people type in something like "games" or "travel" into a search bar, and iGoogle adds a tab that's customizable, but prepopulated with gadgets and feeds it thinks are relevant based on the tabs other Googlers have created. "I love this algorithm because it gives you gadgets that don't have the word travel in them but are clearly useful on the gadget home page," Kamvar says.

Another product Kamvar spends time with these days is Web History. People signed up for a Google Account have the opportunity to save every search they've ever made on Google. Turning this feature on lets them browse through old searches to see what Google has on them, but it signals Google to turn on some additional math that personalizes traditional search. For example, someone types in a query and clicks in the fifth result. If done repeatedly, that result will gradually make its way toward the top. There's also what Kamvar calls "query disambiguation:" if you're interested in computers and always search for Apple, you're clearly more interested in the company than the fruit. Web History also gives Google the power to make recommendations through a browser toolbar button, an iGoogle tab or the actual Web History page.

All this additional user information, targeting a username rather than an IP address, surely makes advertisers drool. But this information isn't being used for advertising -- for now. "Right now, we think that personalizing search is much more important than personalizing advertising," Kamvar says. Though that statement comes with a clarification that he's a personalization guy and not an advertising guy, it's also recognition that there is demand that could be filled once the company gets the technology right.

The wealth of information being stored has opened up privacy concerns, and that's one thing that's right on Kamvar's radar. "The fact that we strive toward transparency is lesser known," he says. "If we use something that you search, we want to show it to you and allow you to change it." That means, for example, that Web history and search history are all optional. They can be turned on and off at will, and queries and results can be deleted from Google's memory. One potential addition to that control might be settings that allow history to be deleted after a certain amount of time.

As for the future, Kamvar won't say what's next, but expect there's much more up his sleeve.

About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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