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Teevan sees this work as a first step, allowing personalization that’s helpful but not too intrusive. She says that search engines could follow with “braver personalization,” such as suggesting related keywords and results.

Personalization techniques require access to a lot of information about a user’s past searches—which concerns some people. Microsoft researcher Filip Radlinski and Nicolaas Matthijs, an engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology, have been working on a system that can personalize search results without transmitting any personal information back to a search engine. “To get personalization right, you don’t want the user to feel that they are giving away too much information, or to not know what personal information is being collected and where it is going,” Radlinski says.

The researchers designed a tool that stores a user’s search history on his own computer—instead of remotely, as Google’s Web History feature does. The new tool tracks which pages people visit and analyzes the content there to build a profile of the user’s interests. Based on that profile, the tool rearranges the top 50 search results a person sees to move more relevant results higher up.

To test the system, the researchers asked volunteers to use it in their daily lives for two months. The algorithm increased click-through rates 2.7 times. Based on users’ rankings, the system performed better than default Google search as well. Radlinski says he’s interested in combining this technique with results from social media, while still being sensitive to privacy.

“There is untapped potential for personalization to improve retrieval,” says says Daniel Tunkelang, who is principal data scientist at LinkedIn, adding that investigations like these could certainly lead to better features. Tunkelang says that for these or any personalization tools, the challenge in putting it into practice lies in making sure users have “transparency, control, and guidance.”

The researchers say they don’t know if Microsoft will incorporate their work in the design of Bing, but Teevan believes all search engines see personalization as promising. 

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