Technology is giving us the ability to create a custom web for everyone

What if websites and apps gave you a completely personalized experience, unique to just you? I don’t mean only recommending what movie to watch next but providing completely customized layout, styles, and interactions based on your unique preferences. One where no two people going to the same website would have the same experience.

The way most websites and apps work today is that they generally give all their users the exact same experience. The particular content might change from user to user — for example, my Netflix recommendations are different from yours — but overall, your experience on Netflix is very similar to mine. It still shows both of us a list of movies, sorted by general categories, with the same layout no matter who we are.

A standard Netflix experience

But imagine if Netflix provided you and I two completely different experiences? Both of us might be visiting but everything else we saw and experienced would be completely different, all based on our personal preferences. If I like big text and browsing by search, my Netflix experience might look like this:

Modified Netflix homepage with larger text and big search bar.

But you like large artwork and less text, your Netflix experience might look like this:

Modified Netflix homepage with large browsing images and less text.

This is where I think the web is heading. In fact, it’s already partially here. We’ve already been through the Netflix example but it’s happening in search too. The search results I see on Google for a particular query are different than the ones you see for that very same query because of personalization. The same is true for what YouTube videos come next in my feed versus yours.

If you look closely enough, the rest of the pieces are already there too. Web products have been using concepts like A/B testing for quite some time. Google is even notorious for A/B testing various shades of blue for their buttons. Imagine every part of a website being tested like this but not just to decide what shade to show all users but what shade to show each user.

Websites and apps are also increasing the amount of customized experience users can have. For example, lots of sites now offer different ways of viewing their content, offering themes, font sizes, and even layouts. Imagine having thousands of these customizations for each website you visited but instead of you having to select the settings, the website or app automatically did it for you based on your learned preferences.

Examples of existing customizations like themes, font sizes, and layouts from Pocket, Twitter, and Gmail.

As everyone is now aware, sites on the web are also collecting massive amounts of information about how users use their products. Everything from what pages you visited to the exact points you clicked are being collected for every user.

Finally, the latest advancements in machine learning and recommendation engines mean that you can now create algorithms that truly understand what a user’s preferences are. All this allows for a hyper-personalized experience of the web.

Even if each website and app doesn’t choose to go down this path of hyper-personalization, users might take things into their own hands. We already have things like Reader mode and ad-blocker extensions that alter the experience individual users have on the web. If you take this one step further, we might soon have browser extensions that give the user the ability to completely customize their own browsing experience without needing the website owner to change anything.

Left: normal browsing view of the New York Times on Safari. Right: Same page on New York Times website with Safari’s Reader mode turned on, a much different experience.

This all might sound a little bit out there — and I admit, it kind of is — but I also have a hard time seeing how this won’t eventually be the case. Ads already are hyper-personalized to us based on our interests, browsing history, and demographics, why can’t entire websites and apps do the same? Further, why does the internet we experience have to be the same for everyone? Our houses all look different inside and out, shouldn’t the web too?

There are downsides to this new world of course. One being that by customizing the web down to the individual, we may be missing some of the value that comes from everyone having shared experiences. It brings to mind the Andy Warhol quote about America and Coca-Cola:

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too.” — Andy Warhol

The personalized web is counter to Warhol’s idea of an equal product experience. But we already have unique product experiences in the digital world — no two Twitter feeds are exactly the same.

We could lose a sense of understanding if we aren’t able to know what it is each of us views and experiences on the same website. Google already gets a lot of push-back about showing different search results for the same query. And this hyper-personalization will definitely not reduce the presence of “filter bubbles”.

Finally, there’s always the issue of how it is done. How does the personalization algorithm work? How is the data that’s used collected? But these issues are core issues of our world today that we as a society have to come to terms with in the coming years. They are not unique to bringing more personalization to the web.

I don’t think any of these issues are going away. They exist because they give people what they want. And giving people what they want has never been a losing strategy.

The Personalized Web is right around the corner. It will change the way we all experience the web and unlock a vast amount of new potential. Are you ready?

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