What’s Hot at the Search Insider Summit? Two Words: Sep Kamvar

First published April 26, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I was fortunate enough to be asked to MC the Search Insider Summit in Bonita Springs, Fla. in a little over a week from now.  As the MC, I get to open each day with a few pithy comments and hopefully insightful observations about the emerging trends and notable events in the search engine space.  Let me give you, as a faithful reader of this column, the inside track on at least one of the names I’ll drop regularly. In fact, take a moment to go find yourself a pen to jot this name down, because it will become vitally important to you in the next year or two… Sep Kamvar.

Who, you ask?  As I was writing this I took a quick scan of the regular search marketing columns, including this one, to see how much ink Sep has received in the past week.  It’s a great injustice that when Kevin Federline launches his own search engine we all rush (and I use first-person plural intentionally, I know I wrote about it too) to add our insightful commentary to the buzz surrounded this relative nonevent.  But when perhaps the most important announcement to be made in the search space in years occurred last Thursday, it passed with nary a whisper.  A quick search on Google News showed that the only blogging about this announcement, other than Google’s official post, was a couple of blogs I did on my own site that got picked up in a few other places.  Danny Sullivan also wrote a fairly lengthy post on the announcement. But other than that, not a ripple on the normally turbulent waters of the Internet.

But Sep Kamvar could become one of the most important people at Google very quickly.  In fact, his name could become as well known as Larry and Sergey.  Last Thursday, Google announced that they were adding Web History to their search personalization algorithm.  Sep is the guy behind the algorithm.  I’ve been blogging and writing about personalization for the last few months, telling everyone that they have to pay attention to this.  But other than a handful of people that I’ve spoken to recently, I don’t think that most search marketers or users get how important this potentially is, not just for search but for online marketing in general.The lack of pickup on Google’s announcement is evidence of this.

Three weeks ago I wrote a column called “Google’s Gargantuan Footprint.”  A key piece of that puzzle was Google’s ability to move towards behavioral targeting, and I speculated on how that might happen.  I mentioned the Google Toolbar and its PageRank feature as one of the key elements.  Less than two weeks later I got an e-mail from one of my favorite PR people at Google, Katie Watson, letting me know that Marissa Mayer wanted to chat with me about the company’s plans for personalization.  Sep Kamvar would be joining her on the call.  I juggled my schedule so I could make that call, because I knew it was going to be important.  I was not disappointed.

Google is now offering an opt-in choice for users to include Web History (all the sites you’ve visited) as a data set that will power their search personalization.  Thinking into the near future, you can see that the implications of this are vast on several different levels. Being able to roll Web History into Search History and monitoring a user’s click stream to help refine search results is a huge step toward disambiguation that will substantially alter our individual search experience.

The question for users is: are they willing to make the trade-off necessary by providing all this clickstream data to Google with their consent?  The fact is, if you have PageRank enabled on your toolbar, this information is being sent to Google anyway.  But Google’s recent move toward opting into Web History increases the level of transparency into what information the company is gathering — and how it will be using that information to refine your search experience.

But it’s not the personalization of search results that makes this a sea change.  It’s the ability for Google to close the loop around one individual based on his online behavior — and use that to offer multiple advertising opportunities across their network.  For the interactive marketer, this represents targeting nirvana.  And if one considers Google’s recent acquisition of DoubleClick combined with its contextual network and the ever-spreading Web of touch points that Google now controls, my speculation about the gargantuan footprint that Google is leaving on the online landscape moves several steps closer to reality.

I simply cannot speak enough about how important this is to every search user and every search marketer out there.  At the user level, there will probably be very little in the way of noticeable change for the immediate future.  Google’s move was simply to give Sep and his team a nice clean opt-in database that they can play with to improve the personalization algorithm.  But as Sep and his team begin to refine personalization, expect it to be aggressively rolled into multiple aspects of your Google experience.  It’s the engine that will power the future of Google for the foreseeable future.  It will eventually surpass the PageRank algorithm in importance, giving Google the ability to match content to very specific and unique user intent on the fly.

And for that reason, Sep Kamvar is a name to pay attention to.

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