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Yahoo! Shopping: This Time It's Personal

In an attempt to enable customers to find personalized product recommendations quickly and easily, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo! today launched a new technology designed to rank customer preferences automatically.

The technology, dubbed "SmartSort," was made available immediately across nine consumer electronics categories in Yahoo! Shopping, and will be integrated into additional categories by the end of the year.

At a time when other online shopping entities such as Amazon.com and Froogle from Google are redoubling efforts to improve the collaborative filtering personalization technologies that they employ, the Yahoo! strategy takes an entirely different approach, offering customer recommendations based upon customer preferences, not on previous purchases. According to Rob Solomon, vice president of Yahoo! Shopping, the new service was designed to introduce customers to an entirely different breed of personalization.

"We have specifically designed SmartSort to assist consumers who are in the research phase of the shopping process," he said. "The new feature leverages our advanced algorithmic technology and our vast database of product information to provide consumers with the ability to quickly and effectively locate the best products on the market."

Here's how the SmartSort technology works. First, it helps narrow the search for specific products by taking a broad category and asking each user to tank criteria according to importance. The technology then recommends the top ten models in a particular shopping category based upon the criteria a user selects. To further expedite searches, SmartSort keeps all product recommendations on one interface, and instantly refreshes them when a user adjusts criteria "sliders," or scales. These scales enable users to place more or less value on a specific product attribute every time the user conducts a product search.

While this kind of interactive technology is new for Yahoo! Shopping, e-commerce experts said the personalization effort behind it isn't new at all to the online shopping industry as a whole. Carrie Johnson, senior analyst with Forrester Research in TK, noted that similar tools existed on many e-commerce sites three or four years ago, but were removed from sites due to lack of consumer interest. Johnson added that less sophisticated "personalization" systems based upon previous customer purchases don't work because the algorithms behind those technologies eliminate active human choice from the equation completely.

"[Collaborative filtering] technology that bases assumptions on what you bought in the past doesn't work because it fails to understand shopper preferences inherently," Johnson told internetnews.com. "When you flat-out ask customers what's important to them and base recommendations on that, only then can you get truly personalized recommendations."

Yahoo! coordinated the new SmartSort technology with a recent redesign of its shopping site, and had announced the strategy earlier this year at the Search Engine Strategies Conference & Expo in San Jose. Currently, SmartSort is available in the following Yahoo! Shopping categories: digital cameras, MP3 players, personal digital assistants, desktop computers, notebook computers, printers, mobile phones, televisions, and DVD players.

The Search Engine Strategies show is produced by Jupitermedia, parent company of this Web site.