Monday, June 29, 2009

Adaptive Web Sites

This article is written in collaboration with Maxim Gorelkin.

If you use Web Analytics to determine the effectiveness of your website, you may have noticed that around 99% of your visitors leave in the first three seconds without having done anything. And this is after you’ve spent a good fortune on both search engine optimization that maximized traffic from Google, and landing page optimization that increases the attractiveness of your site. Why, then, are these efforts and investments not yielding the expected results?

You have to deal with a very diverse and demanding web audience. Traditional static web sites are trying to satisfy this group by approximating the “typical” user. But the problem is that every visitor is unique and is looking for something very specific. And since the Internet arms him with nearly unlimited access to resources that meet his demand, he does not wish to fit any more user templates or make compromises. Not to mention that the Internet is ever-evolving to more accurately determine his needs and more quickly meet his requirements. This is what shapes the conditions under which your site must exist, and dictates the rules of the game.

Another trend – to populate your site with all relevant information in order to meet the diverse requirements of all users. The problem with this approach is that the majority of web surfers cannot cope with this “abundance” and decide whether they find anything interesting, and thus quickly leave the site for a more practical “solution”. The use of Web Analytics and Web Mining obliterate many of our illusions about the usefulness of our websites.

As demonstrated by Peter Peter Norvig, Director of Google Research, as far back as 2001 in his web-manifesto "Adaptive Software", in these circumstances you must change the paradigm and begin applying intelligent and adaptive systems. And this is exactly the trend we are now seeing on the Internet. In our case, this is the development of adaptive web sites, which adjust their content and interfaces, in order to better meet the needs and preferences of every individual user. Do not request anything impossible of your visitor: he will never search your site for anything. Today it is your problem to identify what each user is looking for, and to present that to him in the most appealing fashion. Remember, in your Internet business, you compete with… Google!

Now let’s describe the basic properties of adaptive web sites. First, we know from Web Analytics, that the basic web traffic (around 85-90%) comes from search engines such as Google, Bing, Yahoo, Ask, AOL, and so forth. But the majority is from Google (around 75-80%), which in response to any query still throws out on the order of a million results, in the midst of which the user must find his “answer” as quickly as possible. And if a search engine brought a visitor to my online footwear shop looking for “wedding shoes”, where the homepage is populated with the latest-fashion sneakers, then I’ll mostly likely lose this potential customer, even if the page has the exact link he’s seeking at the very bottom. This is the New Internet, where the site must “guesstimate” (be sufficiently “smart” for this) the needs of the user, know how he “arrived” there, and in “real-time” reconstruct itself with potential matches specific to this visitor. Is this possible? Yes and no. Under the old static-site paradigm: no. However under the new paradigm of adaptive web sites: very often, yes! In regards to an always-yes, forget it. Even when this “yes” accounts for a 20-30% conversion, Amazon and would envy such a site even during Christmas shopping season. The secret lies in the information that the search engine brings with every referred customer: where he came from (URL), which browser and operating system he’s using, but most importantly, what he’s searching for. More precisely, the search query he submitted, which the site must translate into what he’s intending to find. (*)

Second, the site should analyze in real-time what the user is doing: what he’s reading, what he’s clicking on, and the links he’s selecting. It should “formulate” and test its hypotheses in regards to the user’s objectives and generate, for example, new advertisements or recommendations, “watching” his reactions and using this information to offer better suited content (and improve itself at the same time). Even if the site doesn’t have what the user is searching for, it can find it on the Internet and offer links.

Third, one doesn’t search for information on adaptive sites since the pages offer it up-front, similar to Amazon with its “customers who bought this also bought”, Netflix with its Cinematch, Pandora and so forth. They recommend content that their visitors may not have even known about. (**)

In summary, while the idea of adaptive websites isn’t novel, being formulated around ten years ago, it can be implemented now on the combination of Machine Learning and Rich Internet Applications, such as AJAX and MS Silverlight.

(*) To do this I analyze my web-log for constant and static patterns of visitor behavior based on the search keywords submitted to the search engines. I then find combinations of words that “work” on the site, and those that do not. If there is a significant amount of the latter that we can’t ignore, we build specialized content pages for the most common combinations. The problem lies in the fact that my web traffic is complex, dynamic and sporadic, and thus many patterns carry a dynamic characteristic; thus to discover and apply them, I rely on machine learning algorithms. And in order to yield more accurate results, I must complicate the matter further and enrich the search queries with demographic data about the visitors, obtained from the same search engine.

(**) This is extremely complicated – analyzing every visitor, that’s why adaptive web sites cluster similar users into groups, building models for each and every one of them, and then in real-time try to correctly classify the visitor with one of these, and considering unavoidable occasional errors, continue to improve both the collection and the matching mechanism.


Carolyn Wei "Adaptive Web Sites: An Introduction" (2001)
Paul De Bra, Lora Aroyo, и Vadim Chepegin "The Next Big Thing: Adaptive Web-Based Systems" (2004)
Abhijit Nadgouda "Adaptive Websites – The Future of Web" (2006)
Howard Yeend "Adaptive Web Sites" (2009)
Jason Burby "Using Segmentation to Improve Site Conversions" (2009)

Business Case Studies:

BT Group: Website Morphing can increase your sales by 20%
Autonomy Interwoven Merchandising and Recommendation
Vignette Recommendations
FatWire Analytics
Sitecore Visitor Experience Analytics & Real-Time Site Personalization
ChoiceStream RealRelevance Recommendations
Leiki Focus


  1. Mikhail: great post. in your experience is there anyone you know of doing this well? at the end of the day it is all about relevance isn't it?

  2. You provided a fine explanation of the changing landscape and why adaptive websites are needed. Makes we want to learn more about how to create one.

  3. Mikhail,

    Very nice post, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

    There are some simple "behavior targeting" that you can do without too much work. You can use current a/b or mvt tools and rig them up to serve more targeted content based on something in the referrer (keyword, source site etc).

    The complexity comes in the (over) promises that some vendors make about being able to use AI or other advanced models to predict behavior (hence match up relevant content). On the web most data is anonymous (as perhaps it should be) and fragile (cookies and sparse (not enough known about each "person".

    So small gains that will have huge impact, we can and should do today.

    Bigger gains to have huger impact, we will have to wait some time (not because our systems are not smart enough to crunch data, more that we don't have enough data to crunch).


  4. Mikhail,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I agree with the ideas you have laid forth and the numbers match my experience as well. Even with a solid investment in SEO and usability studies with differing types of users you will not move the needle as much as you would/could if you were to build this type of solution.
    The key is clearly the site's "front door", targeted at the intent of the user.

    - If the user comes directly to your page, having never visited your site before you take them to your generic home/landing page. Cookie where they go so you can use this information on future visits to change their initial landing page appropriately.
    - Use the referral information on the request to determine what they're searching for and give them relevant information.

    Now, with that said, I haven't seen this done, at least not well, anywhere. The investment in building the system could be high, what are your thoughts on the ROI of the investment?


  5. Hello Mikail
    Great post, I very much agree.
    As a side note, Amazon does utilize a system to recommend books and DVD and other items to customers based on their past shopping histories, this actually is very successfull, and works well on me, beause I fotten buy things based on this. I see a lot of growth in the area of intelegent website applications.
    Dr. Brian Glassman
    Ph.D in Innovation Management from Purdue University

  6. Here are my categories after a quick thought

    1. Adaptive to incoming to keep on site
    2. Adaptive once on website to perform goals of website
    3. Adaptive to prevent exits
    4. Adaptive via secondary contact

    Example of each
    1. Search finds what he want displayed on primary entry page
    2. Finds product that entice them more displayed
    3. Finds ways to stop them from leaving by enticing them to stay(exit question or exit promotions, display similar products)
    4. Adaptive emails with more enticing items for each customer (amazon does this well).
    Dr. Brian Glassman
    Ph.D in Innovation Management from Purdue University

  7. Misha,

    Great cloud you have attracted here.

    As you know, I am not so much interested in the intelligence and adaption to "movements" predicated by history. What turns me on is new patterns predicated on patterns of “ah-ha's” or human insights focused on one’s innate, nature and True Self.

    This is where the adaptive and intelligence game changes… and does so in critical, nth dimensional ways.

    The math alone will look more and more like the math used in k-space/frequency analysis (Fourier, Laplace Transforms, Lie Groups) and as performed in research on the higher cortical, perceptual and sensory-motor systems function of the monkey and the human brain (Pribram, Karl H. - "Languages of the Brain..." and more current work).

    The various architectures and features and functionalities of the human mind, in fact, will continue to be mirrored and literally projected were possible, in our tech systems to optimally affect communication among, and development of, other minds (human beings).

    Gentlepersons... We are literally dying - to adapt our world – in the innate and cellular-resonance-driven pursuit of better "fits" among minds... this is controlling all that we do, it is controlling our definition of adaption, and certainly our definition of intelligence.

    Thank you for the space to vent Misha and I hope we will be working on this together …and sooner than latter… as a quality life-time is so short.


    J. Brian hennessy

  8. People use the internet for searching something by using search engines. Adding some adaptive features to a business website will be helpful for the customers and the biz owner. Amazon is the best example. By suggesting related items on your website, the customer may find the best one he can use or buy. One of the important things a web owner should keep in mind is relevance.

  9. Internet users are smart, so website developers should be smarter to be able to take advantage of the opportunity. As the web community is ever-changing, so too should web developers be ready to change their websites for the better, and keep themselves updated on new trends.