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From Cookies to COAT: How Web Personalization Might Work in the Future


Did you know there are donut shops where you get to customize the toppings? How dangerous is that?! Just like the build-your-own frozen yogurt shops or DIY Bloody Mary bars or made-to-order taco stands, we love for our world to be customized just for us. So it’s no wonder that the digital world is heading that way, too.

Although technology experts may disagree on exactly what the Web of the future will look like, the one thing they can agree on is that it’s only going to get more personal. The trouble is, in order to get more personal, the Web needs to know more about you.

Tracking Today

As the Web exists today, there are a couple ways to get information on Web users in order to build a more personalized experience.

First off, there’s analytics. According to an article by Smashing Magazine, “Website analytics programs, such as Google Analytics and MixPanel, all try to give a good picture of who has visited your website, how long they stayed, what websites they came from, what devices they used, etc. What this data won’t tell you is what content the visitors have an affinity for.”

And then, there are cookies. Cookies track visitors to your website. They are used to personalize a user’s site preferences, authenticate a user to a site requiring a log-in, track affiliate leads, and analyze site traffic. What cookies don’t do is accurately determine the specific content on your site that each unique visitor cares about.

So how do we go about getting that personal?

COAT

Obinwanne Hill, founder and CEO at Restive Labs – a company working to help make the Web instinctively fast, responsive and contextual – authored an interesting article on the future of the Web in which he suggests a few ways to move the standard of Web design forward in an effort to continue to evolve and improve the experience for the user.

One of his suggestions was cumulative and open affinity tagging, or COAT for short. As described by Hill, COAT is “a shared method of understanding the things visitors have an affinity for and then building a profile of that affinity.” So what does that actually mean in the real world? Let’s take a look at how it breaks down in practice.

Track Behavior: You visit a bunch of websites regularly. Some are news websites; some are sports websites; some are blogs. In a Web world that uses COAT, each website you visit would track that activity.

Store Information: Your Web browser (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, etc.) would read this affinity tag and store it, basically making a note of what matters to you most – whether it’s local news or pro soccer or technology trends.

Customize Experience: When you visit another website, say ESPN.com, that site would be able to read the stored information and know that you are really into soccer. And so it would give more priority to soccer content on the site because it knows that’s what you want to see, thus creating a customized experience just for you.

Hill explains that, “Tracking content affinity and adapting content to said affinity could really help us build websites that truly adapt to people’s desires.” The trouble is, in order for COAT to work, all websites would need to collaborate openly to build and share these affinity profiles.

Implications

Looking forward, there are major marketing implications of a COAT-wearing Web. For instance, you’d know the interests of site visitors the very first time they stumble upon your site. For a news site, you could instantly show the stories that matter most to each visitor, every single time. For a retailer, you could promote the right deals and products to the right potential customers.

And for the user? Well, we get the custom-made-donut-topping experience with every site we visit.