From the April 2000 issue of Startups

The first time surfers visit Arepa.com, they see more than 100 software applications, games and other digital content they can stream and run over high-speed Internet connections. If they rent anything, the next time they hit the site, they're immediately ushered into the "My Titles" page. Here they're shown their rental history without the now-irrelevant main-page information.

The idea, says Ric Folup, the 24-year-old founder of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Arepa Inc., is to increase convenience and purchases by providing every user with a personalized view. Many dot.coms, such as Amazon.com, CDNow, Excite and Yahoo!, are employing similar tricks in hopes of quickly giving users what they want, distinguishing themselves from the competition and, of course, increasing sales. It appears to work: Excite, for instance, reports that customization has quintupled its number of repeat customers.

"[These sites show] users what they're interested in," explains Jonathan Avedikian, vice president and design director at The Internet Design Firm, a start-up Web development company in Austin, Texas. "That increases sales and also brings users back again because they see what they want without having to go look for it."


Mark Henricks, author of Business Plans Made Easy (Entrepreneur Media Inc., $19.95, http://www.entrepreneur.com) and Mastering Home Networking (Sybex Inc., $29.99, http://www.sybex.com), writes on business and technology issues.

Smart Cookies

Site customization, or dynamic content customization, is a two-step process. The first step is to gather information on the visitor. Secondly, display content that will result in a positive experience for customers.

Data-gathering takes two forms. You can ask users what they want, or you can try to figure it out by tracking their movements. The first method requires users to fill out a form. The second involves tracking sales records or logging mouse clicks so you can guess what the visitor wants. Each approach has its limitations. "If you present some users with a form, they'll back right out of your site," warns Mark Joyner, CEO of Aesop Marketing Corp., an Internet marketing consultancy based in Los Angeles.

Identifying users by Internet address rather than passwords, on the other hand, probably won't scare visitors but is unreliable-you can't be sure who is on the other end of the mouse. Says Joyner, "You could be profiling someone [while] using someone else's behavior." And then your system is shot.

Planting cookies on users' computers offers more reliable identification, but this practice offends many surfers. Seeking the best of both approaches, some sites mix active and passive data-collection styles. Others add non-Internet information bought from market research companies. "If you get some demographic data, you can begin to put together a more detailed picture of your customers," says James Tenser, a retail analyst with Nexgenix, a Westport, Connecticut, e-business consultancy.

Getting Personal

There are a few popular approaches to presenting custom content. One such technique, rules-based filtering, runs user information through software that decides which pages and what content to present. Another approach, collaborative filtering, combines user data with information about what similar visitors have purchased or recommended. A book or music site might make purchase suggestions by telling users something like "People who bought that product also bought this one."

Customization is accomplished with programs that work with your Web server software. Not long ago, personalization programs had to be custom-written and were very costly. Only the largest e-commerce sites could afford them. Now a start-up can buy complete customization packages off-the-shelf. Yet, customization still isn't cheap; most is done by sites with budgets above $500,000, Avedikian says. But it's rapidly becoming more affordable. You can download scripts offering some degree of customization for as little as $1,000. (Check http://www.cgi-resources.com for examples.) Even at those prices, customization isn't for every site, says Bernadette Tiernan, author of the e-commerce manual e-tailing: Profits from the E-Commerce Explosion (Dearborn Financial Publishing, $25, http://www.dearborn.com). "The technology has to support customer needs," Tiernan says.

If you do it, do it right-because you've got a lot of competition. "All those sites that were doing [a little of this] a few years ago," warns Fulop, "are doing a lot more today."

Personalization Central

Need to know more about customization? Visit http://www.personalization.com. This site, underwritten by customization software vendor Net Perceptions (http://www.netperceptions.com), is devoted to information and analysis of Web site personalization.

Contact Sources

Aesop Marketing Corp.,http://www.aesop.com

Arepa.com, (617) 583-4100, http://www.arepa.com

The Internet Design Firm, (512) 451-5225, http://www.theidf.com

Nexgenix Inc., (203) 847-1115, http://www.nexgenix.com