Untangling the Contextual Web


Imagine it’s the future. It’s the future, and you’re getting ready for work. As you brush your teeth, you pull up your favorite news site online using your tablet. On the homepage of that site, you’re shown a weather alert warning you about an impending downpour that could affect your morning commute, the final score from your favorite football team’s game last night, events happening in your neighborhood this weekend, and national stories everyone should know. Each story on the site’s home page is customized just for you.

Oh, wait. That’s not the future. That was this morning.

Chances are you had to provide a lot of information to that news site in order to build a homepage customized based on your interests. But what if the websites you visit could do that automatically –without you ever having to log in or set up a profile or offer any personal information at all?

Well that’s exactly where the Web is headed: a contextual Web that serves up personalized experiences based on users’ unique interests.

Context(ual) Is Key

The idea of personalized online experiences is not new. It’s why all you’ll see are digital display ads for dog beds after you’ve scoped out a few online. What’s changing, however, is that contextualization is moving beyond showing ads and selling products to the Web itself through contextual Web design. By adapting to your interests, contextual web design seeks to create a more personalized web browsing experience that’s built right in.

So how does it work? There are different approaches Web developers are taking to achieve contextual websites. For example, Gravity, a Santa Monica-based start-up, creates an interest graph for users based on how they interact with a website. The interest graph is then used to give each user a specific, unique experience on that site by showing the content that’s most relevant to them based on their interests.

Other developers are using segmentation to deliver unique content. By combining first- and third-party data, these developers are custom-tailoring website experiences by audience segment, including specific attributes such as age, gender, income, education and interests. So when a Millennial visits an investment website, he’ll see different information than a Baby Boomer, as the site will serve up the content that’s most relevant for each audience.

The End Game: Improving the User Experience

It sounds a little creepy when you put it in writing, but contextualization is all about improving the experience for the end user: giving you the information you want without you even having to ask for it.

In a recent article on the future of websites, Smashing Magazine notes that the intent of a contextual Web “is not to figure out who a person is and where they might be, but to get a broad picture of the kind of content they like (and how much they like it), so that websites are able to personalize their browsing experience.”

From a marketing standpoint, the benefits of contextual Web are seemingly endless – especially for large websites where visitors normally have to click through numerous pages to find the information they need. For example, if a woman visits a major retailer’s website, like Target.com, and that site is built with contextual web design, she could automatically be shown the items and information most relevant to her – sales on women’s clothing, new household items, or products and brands that appeal most to women, or even more specifically appeal most to her.

With contextual Web design, your website can “recreate” itself to best serve each unique visitor, which is something a brick-and-mortar establishment will never be able to do.

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