Google, Facebook Tout Serendipity Engines, Personalized Media

Google CEO Eric Schmidt touted autonomous search while Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the future of media will be personalized. The circle of machines is drawing closer.

One day after Google CEO Eric Schmidt touted autonomous search as a serendipity engine where information comes to users instead of tracking them down, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the future of media will be personalized.

Schmidt's and Sandberg's points are that computers and the software that empower them are getting smart enough to tailor content for users based on a number of signals, including tastes for food, entertainment activities and other personal preferences.

For example, where users search frequently for pizza from their computers and smartphones, Google makes the most relevant results bubble up for that user, refining them based on location. That's happening now thanks to personalized search and Google's location database software.

In the future, Schmidt said a user walking down the street in New York may find his or her phone pinged with information about places they pass. If these alerts are based on the pizza lover's preferences, results will no doubt include local pizza parlors.

Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray noted that while what Schmidt described Sept. 28 at TechCrunch Disrupt-that search engines will push content to users based on their personal preferences-sounds like science fiction, the opportunities to "improve human discovery are very real."

In Ray's example, a person who rated a Mexican restaurant in the past may receive alerts about another well-rated Mexican eatery nearby.

"It is the combination of social media, individual preferences and context that creates the opportunity for proactive discovery rather than reactive search," Ray said, pointing to the Netflix rating system as an example of a current serendipity engine.

The ramifications of applications that deliver information to users without explicit prompting will lead to ad-hoc e-commerce transactions.

This will change the game for marketers, Ray noted, who will have to tailor products and services to individual people not just demographics.

Facebook's Sandberg, meanwhile, argued at the Advertising Week event Sept. 29 that "people don't want something targeted to the whole world-they want something that reflects what they want to see and know."

To wit, in the next three to five years, generalized Websites will be an anachronism, she argued.

One could argue all day whether this is good or bad-ReadWriteWeb outlined the pros and cons of letting users receive only content that suits their tastes-but it certainly meshes with Facebook's philosophy of personalization.

People who discuss a band frequently on Facebook may find ads for merchandise or concerts related to that band pop up in their accounts. That's happening today.

In Schmidt's future of autonomous, serendipitous search, that same music-loving Facebook user may drive by a concert venue and receive a SMS notification from their Facebook account alerting them that the band is playing there tonight.

Why do the leg work when the machines can do it for you? Just another step along the long path to artificial intelligence.