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AOL 9.0 gets personal with subscribers

America Online's latest Web access technology incorporates software that shapes Web pages to personal tastes--a first for the company.

America Online is aiming to cinch ties to subscribers with technology that gets to know you.

The company's latest Web access technology, which it introduced to broadband subscribers in recent weeks, incorporates software that shapes Web pages to personal tastes--a first for AOL. By collecting data from questionnaires and with users' permission, AOL 9.0 can deliver personalized listings on TV shows, movies, music and shopping queries. It also can learn what consumers like over time based on their ratings and recommendations on entertainment they prefer.

In the future, AOL could use the technology to alter search results and news to personal tastes, according to Steven Johnson, president of ChoiceStream, a developer of software that helps power AOL's service.

"AOL is creating an environment in which members will no longer have to wade through hundreds of TV listings or thousands of CD titles to find content that interests them," said David Gang, AOL's executive vice president of products. "Instead, we can present each member with the news, music or TV shows he or she prefers, shortening search times."

The move underscores a growing interest in technology that helps personalize Web pages. As do rival portals, AOL has long allowed people to customize its service--for example, change icons or set e-mail preferences. But AOL's new service specifically relates to Web content and uses profiles of members to deliver more relevant information in less time.

All the major portals and search services are closely examining how best to introduce similar features to curry favor and loyalty from visitors. If successful, they could help millions of people better navigate the Web and unlock new revenue potential from online marketing.

Lisa Gurry, group product manager for Microsoft's MSN, said MSN plans to launch new personalized features for members this year, but she could not elaborate on the details. MSN already allows people to customize their home page by, for example, choosing a favorite radio station; its music service will recommend stations it gauges as relevant to people based on their history. "Personalization is important," she said. "We'll be looking at introducing a number of features related to this area."

Yahoo has said that it is pursuing more personalization features, including in Web search. The Web portal already uses some collaborative filtering for its music service, Launch. Collaborative filtering is a process of showing Web surfers material they may like based on how the choices they've made relate to others' choices. For example, if a Web surfer plays a Madonna song, Launch might suggest a Christina Aguillera song as well, because Madonna fans often like her music, too.

"Personalization is becoming important to services like AOL because of the proliferation of information and media," said Johnson, a former AOL executive in product development. "More should be more, but until you can filter it down to a few things you're interested in, it can be overwhelming."

Web companies have long made attempts to create personalization features, but most of these attempts have fallen short of expectations. Amazon.com, for example, regularly serves up book titles related to a visitor's previous purchases, which may no longer be relevant. A personalization feature offered through TiVo, a maker of video recording devices, was criticized when reports circulated that the device would recommend gay-themed TV programs to viewers based on just a few program selections.

For the last year, AOL has been testing software from ChoiceStream, a privately funded company whose backers include Sage Hill Partners. In April, ChoiceStream signed a deal to license its software, called MyBestBets.tv, for AOL 9.0, which is now available only to AOL for Broadband subscribers who use Windows 2000 or XP. AOL will introduce it to the rest of its members later this fall. ChoiceStream is introducing MyBestBets widely on Tuesday. The company said it is in talks with several music download services to launch the technology.