Net Perceptions takes on Firefly with profiling system

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Net Perceptions today unveils GroupLens 2.1, which the company said is the first product to support the new Open Profiling Standard (OPS) privacy initiative.

OPS is being developed by the Platform for Privacy Preferences, whose members include Microsoft Corp., Netscape Communications, Net Perceptions rival Firefly Network (which is expected to announce support for OPS in its products), IBM Corp. and others, in an effort to help consumers know how their personal information will be used on the Web.


OPS will allow Web surfers to pre-program personal data, such as their age, gender and address, into their Web browsers, which they can later opt to share with Web sites they visit. Support for OPS at this time is more a publicity triumph than a real customer benefit, as neither Netscape nor Microsoft Corp. have implemented the standard into their browsers yet, though they both plan to do so in upcoming releases.

Nonetheless, Minneapolis-based Net Perceptions is taking a lead in the OPS movement because it will benefit its GroupLens product. The company describes GroupLens as a "recommendation engine," helping users choose, for example, a film title based on an analysis of the likes and dislikes of other people with similar tastes, using a technique called collaborative filtering.

"If we know the user's demographic information [via OPS], that gives us a head start on being smarter about that user and helping the site serve that user better," said Steven Snyder, Net Perceptions' president-CEO, explaining the OPS integration. For example, he said, a film site wouldn't recommend an NC-17-rated film to someone whose OPS profile indicated she was 11 years old.

Support for OPS also helps Net Perceptions position itself against Firefly, which was one of the key drafters of the OPS standard. It has been busy promoting that fact, selling for several months a "profile management" product, the Firefly Passport, in addition to its own recommendation software, the Firefly Catalogue Navigator.


Indeed, Net Perceptions' biggest challenge is perception. Ask Internet industry observers who they first associate with the terms "recommendation software" or "personalization agent," and most are likely to say Firefly.

The irony is that Net Perceptions' chief technical officer, John Riedl, was the first to publish research about collaborative filtering as a computer science professor at the University of Minnesota; Net Perceptions and Firefly each have only one customer using their recommendation software (Net Perceptions has E! Online; Firefly has My Yahoo!); and Net Perceptions is focusing its business solely on recommendation technology, while Firefly has lately devoted much attention to its Passport profile management product.

However, Net Perceptions has shown it's a serious player with recent announcements of customers, including Amazon.Com, the Sabre Group, Starwave and E! Online.

For its part, E! Online, the Web venture of the cable entertainment network E! Channel, is bullish about the

recommendation features that GroupLens has given its new site MovieFinder, and may soon use it to serve ad banners on the site.

"People love it," said Jim Thompson, senior producer of MovieFinder, speaking of the recommendation feature. "We have gotten an overwhelming positive response."

Forrester Research analyst Susan Gertzis believes that recommendation technology will be a competitive advantage for many sites in the future. "I think a variety of personalization technologies, including collaborative filtering, will help to increase ad targeting effectiveness," she said.

Copyright July 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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