Unintrusive Customization Techniques for Web Advertising
Marc Langheinrich1, Atsuyoshi Nakamura,
Naoki Abe, Tomonari Kamba, Yoshiyuki Koseki
NEC Corporation, C&C Media Research Laboratories
1-1-4 Miyazaki, Miyamae-ku
Kawasaki, Kanagawa 216-8555 Japan
In this paper, we propose a novel technique of adapting online advertisement to a user's short term interests in a non-intrusive way. As a proof-of-concept we implemented a dynamic advertisement selection system able to deliver customized advertisements to users of an online search service or Web directory. No user-specific data elements are collected or stored at any time. Initial experiments indicate that the system is able to improve the average click-through rate substantially compared to random selection methods.
17]. For the foreseeable future, advertisement remains the single major source of revenue for most companies on the Web since many users are not yet willing to pay for online services such as search engines, Web directories or online magazines.
In order for Web advertisement to be effective, advertisers increasingly rely on targeting techniques that invade a user's privacy. Some of the largest commercial sites on the World Wide Web recently agreed to feed information about their customers' reading, shopping and entertainment habits into a central system, mostly without the user's knowledge .
Surveys  indicate that users are beginning to value their online privacy more and more. Widespread consumer protest last year prompted online giant AOL to reverse it's plans of selling information from its customer database to an online marketing firm .
Instead of amassing more and more information about each user, we propose a less intrusive approach: a low-data oriented customization sufficient to capture the short-term interests of users of Web directory and search services. As a first step, we have implemented an advertisement server system for short-term advertisement customization in order to measure the level of adaptivity that is possible with minimal data.
Our system relies only on search keywords supplied by a user to a search engine. Based on the user's current interests (as expressed by the chosen search keyword) the system dynamically selects a best matching advertisement. By only relying on one or more keywords, no user-specific data is collected or retained, allowing us to provide customized advertisements without invading user privacy. Alternatively, in a browsable directory setting, our system observes the URL of the page the user is requesting and selects the most appropriate advertisement for this page.
The following sections will first describe current techniques for advertisement selection, then contrast this with our plans for an unintrusive advertisement system called ADWIZ. After giving some implementation details of our first prototype we will summarize some simple, preliminary experiments we conducted and close with comments on future and related work.
27]. There is seemingly no end in sight: according to marketing research companies, revenue figures from online ad sales continue to grow at a rate of more than 200% a year , with expected revenues of over 2 billion dollars in 1998 alone .
Figure 1: A typical Advertisement Banner
on the Web. Most banner advertisements on the Web today are GIF or
JPEG files in a rectangular format, suitable for display at the
top or bottom of a Web page. However, many advertisement systems also
support both smaller sizes (for example for displaying them on a
navigation sidebar) and other media formats (such as HTML tables or
even Java programs).|
The technical details of both HTML  (the markup language used to describe Web page content) and HTTP  (the protocol used to request and transmit Web pages) make it possible to separate page content and advertisement, thus enabling dynamic advertisement selection every time a Web page is requested.
The basic process is outlined in figure 2: the Web page of an online service (the "publisher") contains a link to a banner advertisement. Although the content of the original Web page (step 2) stays the same, the Ad Server will potentially select different banner images for subsequent advertisement requests (steps 5-7).
Once a user shows interest in the displayed banner and clicks on it, the surrounding hyperlink will point back to the Ad Server where a script notes the click and sends a redirection message with the correct advertiser's site back to the originating browser. With a slight delay, the browser will request the correct product information page from the advertiser's server.
Figure 2: Online Advertisement - Control & Data
Flow. Embedded HTML images (step 3) and HTTP redirection (step 12)
make it possible to separate page content and advertisement. After
obtaining the page content from the publisher's Web server, the user's
browser will request a dynamically selected advertisement from the Ad
Server (part I). Once the user clicks on the advertisement (part II),
the Ad Server will redirect the user to the appropriate site.|
- Early systems and many small scale operations in use today simply target the broad Web audience in general. Ads are either fixed on a Web page for a certain time period and then manually updated, or a simple, random form of banner rotation is used .
- Ad Banners are targeted to a certain site or page topic. For example, advertisers on the Yahoo!  Web site can target their advertisement to any of the more than 100 thousand categories featured in the Web directory.
- Targeted (filtered)
- The most popular form of professional Web advertising today. Advertisers can specify targeting parameters such as the user's operating system or browser software, time constraints, country or even the Internet Service Provider (ISP) used. The selection mechanism on the Ad Server (step 5 in figure 2) analyzes the request and selects only those advertisements for placement that match the current situation.
- Next generation advertisement systems use neural networks  and other proprietary learning methods  to allow personalized advertisement selection based on the browsing and interaction history a particular user, as well as other demographic information.
| Figure 3: Comparison
of Online Advertisement Systems. Traditional advertisement systems
have to balance the tradeoff between improved customization and
increased user surveillance. Separating short-term and long-term
interests allows us to achieve higher customization with less
intrusion of user privacy.
22, 9th survey], which makes it difficult to display a single advertisement that appeals to all its viewers.
Using editorial placement mechanisms, such as site specific advertising (for example on a site promoting the use of a certain operating system) or advertisement on topic-based pages (such as a Web directory), user interests directly overlap with the topic of the ad. While no user data needs to be collected, this form of advertisement placement still needs a high grade of monitoring in order to decide the best match between a certain advertisement and the page's content.
Targeted advertisement allows advertisers a greater level of control over
who sees their advertisements and raises only minor privacy concerns,
since usually no personal identifiable data is collected. However,
systems like DoubleClick's DART 
use unique identifiers to group the collected data by user . In either
case, advertisers have to constantly monitor and manually revise their
targeting parameters in order to maximize the effectiveness of
Finally, systems for personalized ad selection put the computer in
charge of the constant adaptation of targeting constraints, but
require a unprecedented level of user monitoring.
Recent reports [10,3] already outline plans to connect
such "click-trail" databases with those of traditional
mass-mailing companies, containing detailed demographics (income, age,
gender) and buying-habit data about each user. Unsurprisingly, over
62% of Internet users do not trust sites collecting their online data
[22, 9th survey] and more than two
thirds ask for new laws on privacy [22, 8th survey].
Both keywords and page URLs reflect user interest in a certain
topic and can be used to customize the displayed advertisement. This
information is said to be "short-term" based, since users
might have various reasons for looking up a certain article or Web
page, that might or might not coincide with their regular
Our "short-term interests" approach, called "Adaptive
Targeting" is situated between the targeting-by-filtering and
personalization approaches described above (see figure 3). Instead
of amassing large amounts of information about the user as it is
necessary for traditional approaches, our system can provide highly
relevant advertisement with only a single piece of information
(keywords or page URLs) by being able to automatically adapt to
changes in correlation between this data and the actual advertisements.
Instead of creating more and more sophisticated monitoring
applications for Web advertising, we propose to use the readily
available information stored in the user profiles of such services. In
order to personalize advertisement to fit long-term user interests,
such a system could completely rely on the personalization application
to collect the necessary user profile information.
The current implementation of our adaptive targeting solution
ADWIZ does not yet support long-term interest targeting, but
several of our planned extensions to this extent are listed in section
4.2 Future Work. The following
section will describe our implementation of a short-term interest
based advertisement system, ADWIZ, in more detail.
We will first give a very high level overview of the system's architectural
components and its interfaces, and then proceed to describe its core
components in more detail. Using empirical results obtain in our
initial experiments we will then assess the system's effectiveness.
Finally, systems for personalized ad selection put the computer in charge of the constant adaptation of targeting constraints, but require a unprecedented level of user monitoring. Recent reports [10,3] already outline plans to connect such "click-trail" databases with those of traditional mass-mailing companies, containing detailed demographics (income, age, gender) and buying-habit data about each user. Unsurprisingly, over 62% of Internet users do not trust sites collecting their online data [22, 9th survey] and more than two thirds ask for new laws on privacy [22, 8th survey].
Both keywords and page URLs reflect user interest in a certain topic and can be used to customize the displayed advertisement. This information is said to be "short-term" based, since users might have various reasons for looking up a certain article or Web page, that might or might not coincide with their regular interests.
Our "short-term interests" approach, called "Adaptive Targeting" is situated between the targeting-by-filtering and personalization approaches described above (see figure 3). Instead of amassing large amounts of information about the user as it is necessary for traditional approaches, our system can provide highly relevant advertisement with only a single piece of information (keywords or page URLs) by being able to automatically adapt to changes in correlation between this data and the actual advertisements.22] recommendations is a good indicator that many users are volunteering a substantial amount of information.
Instead of creating more and more sophisticated monitoring applications for Web advertising, we propose to use the readily available information stored in the user profiles of such services. In order to personalize advertisement to fit long-term user interests, such a system could completely rely on the personalization application to collect the necessary user profile information.
The current implementation of our adaptive targeting solution ADWIZ does not yet support long-term interest targeting, but several of our planned extensions to this extent are listed in section 4.2 Future Work. The following section will describe our implementation of a short-term interest based advertisement system, ADWIZ, in more detail.
We will first give a very high level overview of the system's architectural components and its interfaces, and then proceed to describe its core components in more detail. Using empirical results obtain in our initial experiments we will then assess the system's effectiveness.
| Figure 4: System
Overview. The ADWIZ system consists of four parts: The Ad
Server (1) handles requests for advertisements and selects a suitable
banner ad for a search term of Web page; a Database Server (2) acts as
a central storage facility and communication channel; the Learning
System (3) continuously updates the display probabilities for each
advertisement that are stored in the database; while an Administration
Server (4) allows advertisers (and publishers) to maintain and inspect
the system status.|
Through its back end interface, advertisers (and/or publishers) can modify advertisements and their properties, schedule ad campaigns and obtain detailed performance reports. Advertisers can specify constraints similar to those offered in traditional advertisement systems, restricting display of an advertisement to certain target groups. Additionally, a keyword or particular Web page (or a percentage thereof) can be rented for an advertisement, resulting in a minimum guaranteed display rate for queries featuring this keyword or requests for that page.
Since banner graphic display as well as user click-through handling are simple database lookups, we will focus our description here on the the Ad Server's principal module, the Selection Engine. The Selection Engine is responsible for selecting an advertisement from the pool of available banners for a given request (i.e. a search query or Web page request).
Figure 5 shows the data flow within the Selection Engine that corresponds to step 5 in figure 2, the script call for selecting a banner. For simplicity we will assume a request for embedding an advertisement on the result page of a search service (i.e. a keyword based selection), although the same description would apply to the selection of a page based advertisement.
An Input Decoding module first decodes the parameters supplied through the CGI and extracts the set of keywords f1, f2, ..., fn that were used in the query to the search service. The Relevancy Computation module then uses a set of weights - display probabilities for each advertisement given a certain keyword - to compute a display probability P(fi) for each advertisement in the system, given the search terms f1, ..., fn.
The weights are periodically updated by the Learning System using performance data collected by the system and a set of display constraints specified by the advertiser through the system's Advertisement Management System. Using this distribution, the Advertisement Selection module then chooses a particular advertisement adi and returns the graphical banner information back to the user's browser.
Note that the picture in figure 5 is simplified, since transactions between the Management System (i.e. the Administration Server), the Learning System and the Ad Server are all made through the Database Server.
In the click-through case (not shown) the Ad Server simply has to make a note in its performance table (stored in the database) that a selected ad has been "successful" and then redirect the user's browser to the corresponding Web site specified for this ad. This redirection is again transparent to the user, who might in the worst case notice only a slight delay.
| Figure 5: The Ad Server's advertisement selection
process. After extracting the search keywords, the Ad Server
retrieves the corresponding weights and computes a display probability
P(fi) for each advertisement in the
system, given the search terms f1, ...,
The advertiser sets a number of advertisement and campaign Properties (i.e. when should which ad be displayed). The Learning System continuously reads out the currently active advertisements from the Ad Properties and obtains Performance Data regarding each advertisement's click-through performance together with the corresponding keyword and Web page distribution (i.e. the number of times each keyword has been entered as a search term, and the number of times a particular Web page has been requested).
After computing the new display probabilities the Learning System then updates the Selection Data tables, which are consulted by the Ad Server whenever a new advertisement needs to be selected. Given the id of the ad that should be displayed, the Ad Server can then get the banner image and necessary link information from the Ad Properties tables.
After each advertisement display or click-through redirection, the Ad Server will record the displayed or clicked advertisement and keyword pairs (or advertisement and page pairs) in the Performance Data tables, which the Advertiser can use to monitor the system's performance.
| Figure 6:
Communication via the Database Server. After the Advertiser sets
all relevant Ad Properties, the Learning System obtains
campaign information and Performance Data and computes new
Selection Data (i.e. weights). This information is used by
the Ad Server during advertisement selection. Log information from the
Ad Server is written back into the Performance Data tables,
where it can be accessed by both the Learning System and the
The learning engine system allows for both page-driven ads and (search) keyword-driven ads. In the following description of our learning engine, we again assume the latter setting for simplicity.
The basic idea is that the learning engine gathers statistics on the click-through rates for each advertisement-keyword pair, and then adjusts its ad display schedule in such a way that maximizes the total number of clicks.
One complication arises with this approach, however, due to the fact that, in actual advertisement contracts, a minimum number of displays is usually promised for each advertisement. Thus, simply displaying the "best ads" for each keyword will not work, since poorly performing ads may never get displayed for any keywords. The click maximization problem we are dealing with is therefore an optimization problem with constraints. In particular, we can formulate the click maximization problem as a special form of linear programming problem as stated below.
Suppose that we are to probabilistically display m advertisements A1,...,Am depending on which of the search keywords W1,...,Wn is input. We first need to calculate the desired display rate hj for each ad Aj in the next period (until the learning engine is invoked next). This number can easily be computed by taking the promised number of displays for each advertisement and subtracting from it the number of times the ad has already been displayed. This figure is then divided by the number of remaining days in the advertisement's display period and normalized across all advertisements so that .
We then estimate the input probability ki of each keyword Wi and the click-through rate (clicks per displays) cij of each ad Aj on each keyword Wi based on the past statistics. To calculate the expected keyword input probabilities we simply count the number of times each keyword has appeared in a query in the past (using a logarithmic decay factor) and normalize again so that . During system operation each display and click-through of an advertisement is logged together with the corresponding search keywords that were used to select it. Thus dividing the number of clicks by the number of displays for each advertisement-keyword combination (i.e. Aj and Wi) gives us cij.
With these estimated quantities we set out to compute a display
probability ("weight") dij that for a given
keyword Wj tells our Selection Engine the
probability with which a particular advertisement
Ai from the list of available ads should be
selected. The corresponding optimization problem
we wish to solve can thus be formulated as the problem of
setting the ad display rates dij for
advertisement Ai on keyword
so as to maximize the expected total click-through rate
under the following constraints:
The first constraint ensures that the desired display rate hj for each ad is satisfied, and the rest just ensures that the display probabilities are in fact probabilities, that is non-negative and sum to unity for each keyword.
Incidentally, many contracts come with so called "keyword rental"
and "inhibitory keywords." These can be naturally incorporated
in the above formulation.
For example, if ad Aj is 30 % rented for keyword Wi,
then we just need to replace the constraint (3)
for dij by the following:
Inhibitory keywords could be handled similarly by replacing constraint (3) for dij with dij = 0. But doing it this way has one problem - with too many of these inhibition constraints the optimization problem may become unsolvable and checking whether this is the case can be cumbersome. So we took an alternative approach of setting cij (the clicks-per-displays rate of advertisement Aj on keyword Wi that we computed from past statistics) to -1 when the advertiser wants to discourage the display of ad Aj for keyword Wi.
Notice how with this approach the total click rate is maximized when dij = 0, but that the system is still able to choose a non-zero value should display constraints make it necessary. In contrast, it is easy to check the feasibility of rental (i.e. non-zero) keyword constraints, since the problem is solvable if and only if for all i and for all j.
The above formulation of linear programming in fact belongs to the so called "Hitchcock-type transportation problem"  (One can see this by substituting xij for kidij.) An efficient variant of the Simplex method is known for this class of problems, which uses (for m advertisements and n keywords) only O(mn) space instead of O(mn(m+n-1)) space required by the general Simplex method. (See, for example, .) We adopted this method in our learning engine.
There is a subtle issue that need be addressed when we use the linear programming approach. This is the fact that an optimal solution of the above linear programming problem will tend to set most display probabilities dij to 0, and ad-keyword pairs that perform poorly at the beginning may never be displayed again. This way the confidence of estimation of the click-through rate for that ad-keyword pair will never improve. As one can imagine, it can happen that some ads that can potentially perform well on a keyword get unlucky and do badly at the beginning.
We address this issue by setting a minimum display rate for each ad-keyword pair, which is gradually lowered as a function of the sample size. More specifically, we replace the non-negativity constraint (3) with the following:
where Dij is the number of times Aj was displayed for Wi so far. Here the bound is derived from the standard deviation of the estimation of the click-through rate cij.
We evaluated our learning engine using artificially generated data. We constructed probabilistic models of users, namely a probability distribution D(i) for the keyword generation and a conditional probability model C(i,j) for click-through rates conditioned by a keyword and an ad, and used a random number generator to simulate them. We ran our learning engine in the artificial environment thus constructed and measured its performance.
More specifically, the following trial was repeated one million times, while updating the display probabilities dij every 3,125 trials by feeding the statistics obtained up to that point to the learning engine.
- Generate a keyword Wi randomly according to probability D(i).
- Select an ad Aj randomly according to the display probabilities .
- Decide whether Aj is clicked randomly according to probability C(i,j).
In the experiment that we report here, we used models that consisted of 32 ads and 128 keywords. The 128 keywords were divided into 32 groups of four keywords, with each group appearing with equal probability. Within each group, four keywords appear with different probabilities (with ratios 1:2:3:4). First, a click-through rate assignment to the 32 ads was created by hand, including high, moderately high and low click rates. Then for each of the 32 keyword groups, we created a different pattern of assignment by rotating the original assignment pattern and adding some noise. Within each keyword group, the basic assignment pattern was further modified by multiplying the probabilities by a random real number in for each ad Aj. We had no constraints involving rental or inhibitory keywords.
In our evaluation, we compared our learning method with two simple methods: the method of selecting an ad randomly (the random selection method) and the method of selecting an ad with the maximum click-through rate for the given keyword in the current data (the max click rate method).
Figure 7 shows the results of these experiments. The results were obtained by averaging over five runs in each case. The diamond shaped dots indicate one tenth of the number of displays, and the bars indicate the number of clicks. The first figure is the result using the random selection method, the second figure is for the max click rate method, and the last figure is for our method.
While it is true that the max click rate method achieves the highest total click-through rates, close examination will reveal that with this method half the ads did not get displayed much. Thus, this method is most likely not usable in practice. The number of displays for the ads is balanced for both the random selection method and our method, but the total number of clicks yielded by our method is significantly higher. Figure 8 plots the cumulative total click-through rates achieved by each the three methods over time.
We also ran experiments to evaluate the effect of the modification we described earlier of assuring a minimum number of displays for each ad-keyword pair (4). Figure 9 plots the click-through rates achieved by the version with the modification and the version without it. The click-through rate using the modified version rises more slowly at the beginning since it is doing more exploration, but in the end, it surpasses the vanilla version by a significant margin.
By using an automated, constraint based learning method we are able to
- allow publishers of Web services to increase their inventory space value without having to attend to the actual targeting and placement details,
- give advertisers full control over their advertisement targeting while maximizing the effectiveness of each banner over all unconstrained features, and
- lessen the annoyance of online advertisement for users by providing customized, context sensitive ad banners without invading consumer privacy.
Although a simple selection method that always uses the best performing advertisement achieves the highest total click-through rate in our experiments, the minimum display constraints found in many advertisement contracts today render such strategies useless in practice. Our first prototype has encouraged us to continue our work on unintrusive advertisement customization methods.
 describes a system which separates advertisements and publishers' Web sites by introducing an Advertisement Agent. The agent sits between advertisers and the user's browser and merges banner advertisement directly into the currently viewed page, independent of the page itself. A number of companies have introduced similar systems, for example displaying advertisement while the user waits for Web content to download, but these have so far failed to gain widespread acceptance.
A system developed by  uses explicit interest solicitation, both through a special form-based interface and by using negative feedback controls next to each displayed banner advertisement. Although this approach is both privacy friendly and promises a high potential for personalization, a real-world deployment has yet to show how much effort the user is willing to make in order to receive customized advertisements.
Other studies  suggest that the value of banner advertising goes beyond direct click-through responses, influencing the user even when he or she does not click on the surrounding hyperlink. However, so far no advertiser has adopted any other method for measuring the effectiveness of an ad, rendering click-through maximization performed by our system still the only available benchmark. Finally,  reports that other forms of advertisement, such as site sponsorship, might be better suited to get user attention than simple banner ads. Although the level of such promotional advertisement continues to increase, the Internet Advertisement Bureau still sees banner advertisement as the dominant form of online advertising .
- Scaling Up
- In order to be usable in a real-world setting, our keyword based system has to be able to handle hundreds of thousands of keywords, including proper names, foreign words and misspellings. Proper clustering techniques lie at the heart of such scaling, and we will need to investigate ways to reduce the complexity of the search space the learning system has to cover, while preserving the quality of the available data.
- Real-world deployment
- In order to validate our hypotheses - effective advertisement targeting is possible without invading user privacy - we will need to move our advertisement system from a laboratory environment to a real-world server. Many of the problems associated with such a step are rather technical (guarantee server uptime, provide efficient user interfaces for both advertisers and publishers, etc) and seem to distract us from the research itself. However, building systems that can perform in the real world presents the ultimate validation of any technology designed to improve existing shortcomings.
- Long-term interests
- The methods described in this paper are targeted to detect short-term user interests while interacting with a search service or Web directory. In a second step, we plan to combine this system with a more user-centric personalization system that is able to detect long standing user interests and hobbies. Using both short- and long-term interests simultaneously, our goal is not to monitor a user's complete online habits, but to reuse an existing profile of a personalized system that has been customized with full user consent and cooperation. This reflects the approach taken in , with the important distinction that the user does not personalize the advertisements itself, but rather interacts with the personalized system in a standard fashion while simultaneously improving the relevance of the displayed advertisements.
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|Marc Langheinrich received a masters degree in computer science from the University of Bielefeld, Germany, in 1997. Starting in the fall of 1995, he spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Washington, where he also completed his thesis work in the fields of information retrieval and software agents. In the fall of 1997 he joined NEC Research in Japan and has since been working on projects involving personalization and electronic commerce.||Atsuyoshi Nakamura received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in computer science from the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1986 and 1988. He is presently an assistant manager in the C&C Media Research Laboratories of NEC Corporation. His interests have been in the area of machine learning, especially computational learning theory and information filtering.|
|Naoki Abe received the B.S. and M.S. degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1984, and the Ph. D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989, all in Computer Science. After holding a post doctoral researcher position at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he joined NEC Corporation in 1990, where he is currently principal researcher in the C&C Media Research Laboratories. He is also visiting associate professor in the department of computational intelligence and systems science at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. His research interests include theory of machine learning and its applications to various domains, including internet information mining and navigation.||Tomonari Kamba received his B.E. and M.E., and PhD in Electronics from the University of Tokyo in 1984, 1986 and 1997 respectively. He joined NEC Corporation in 1986, and he has been engaged in user interface design methodology, multimedia user interface, software agent, and Internet information service technology. He was a visiting scientist at the Graphics, Visualization&Usability Center at the College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology from 1994 to 1995. He is now a principal researcher in the C&C Media Research Laboratories, NEC Corporation. Dr. Kamba is a member of ACM SIGCHI and the Information Processing Society of Japan.|
|Yoshiyuki Koseki received his B.S. degree in computer science from the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1979 and his M.S. degree in computer science from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1981. He received his Ph.D. in System Science from Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1993. He joined NEC Corporation in 1981, and has since been engaged in research on artificial intelligence, expert systems, visual programming, information visualization, and WWW-based agent technology. He is now a Senior Research Manager in NEC's C&C Media Research Laboratories and is a member of the IEEE, the Japanese Society for Artificial Intelligence, and the Information Processing Society of Japan.|