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Privacy tradeoffs and the search wars

ChoiceStream CEO Steve Johnson asks whether consumer privacy is destined to become a victim of the search wars.

To some, personalization signals a new era of search, in which people can quickly navigate through the Web's vast reaches. To others, it is an ominous harbinger of encroachment on consumers' right to online privacy. No doubt the personalization of search results has emerged as one of the most promising weapons in the search market business. But are consumers being asked to give up too much personal information in exchange for more relevant search results?

Web sites now routinely ask consumers to provide personal information in exchange for access to premium content, free e-mail, contests and more. Consumers have responded to these requests by readily providing that information.

It's no exaggeration to say the Internet has evolved to the point where exchanging personal data for content and services has become a regular quid pro quo. What was previously accepted as gospel--that Web sites should not ask people for personal information because it will deter visitors--has given way to a more practical balance.

The user preference and demographic information needed for personalization is not very different from what is already being collected from consumers. So companies like Yahoo and Google need only collect the most basic information. But what constitutes this "basic" information?

To a large extent, it's the same as that required for free registration at many Web sites and includes details such as gender and geographic location. For best results, services also collect information regarding a consumer's preferences. This can include very specific information, such as which sports teams a consumer follows, preferred locations for vacation travel, or news topics of interest. It can also include more abstract information such as whether a consumer prefers aggressive electronic music with a driving beat or mellower acoustic music.

Safe, effective use of personalized search requires consumers to use common sense.
As is true of virtually all Internet services, safe, effective use of personalized search requires consumers to use common sense. There are certain pieces of information that a person should not part with, regardless of the promised benefits. For example, if a sports Web site asks for a consumer's Social Security number, that person should see red flags waving. If that same Web site asks the consumer to rate his or her favorite teams, that is a different question entirely.

Search services themselves also share the burden of making personalized search safe for consumers. Services must continue to earn the trust that consumers place in them by ensuring that their information will be used exclusively to benefit the search experience and will not be shared with third parties for any reason.

In general, we as consumers have become desensitized to the information we give up because we're so used to providing it to the companies we patronize. It's not unique to the world of the Internet either. The fact is you can't buy batteries in a Radio Shack without being asked for personal information, including your name, phone number and ZIP code.

The search wars and the advent of personalized search are drawing attention both for their promise and for their potential pitfalls. Regardless of who emerges victorious, the use of personal information will continue to be at the forefront of technology innovation. As long as people are able to remain anonymous--and search services properly safeguard the information collected-?then supplying insight into who we are and what we prefer should not sound privacy alarm bells.