Growing Excitement Around Product Recommendation Software

9 Apr

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When you are shopping, a sales person who can quickly understand your needs, preferences, and budget and make a reasonable, logical recommendation is invaluable. While shopping online has typically required that customers already know what they were looking for, or that they conduct extensive research online in advance of a purchase, software is increasing playing the role of the sales person. While approaches to providing customer shopping recommendations have evolved with time, however, today’s software leaves considerable room for improvement. The recent funding of a Bay Area startup focused on customer recommendation demonstrates that venture capitalists have started to wake up to the potential this technology could hold.

Consumer recommendation tools online initially began by mirroring something that already existed in the print world: editor’s reviews and “product of the year” comparisons. Later came “Buyer’s Guides” which followed a simplistic logic to evaluate a few short responses to an online survey to provide a customer recommendation. Then came Amazon‘s product recommendations, based upon the analysis of other customer decisions (“others who purchased this item also purchased…”). This basic methodology has since been implemented in a number of different places around the web, with varying success. I would argue that NetFlix has been the most successful – the one site where I have significant confidence in the accuracy of the recommendations I receive, and act upon them with little or no knowledge of the film recommended. NetFlix, unlike today’s iTunes or Amazon stores, however, does this by not only considered what I have purchased (or viewed) before, but also how much I liked it.

If other online stores were able to earn my trust to a similar level without requiring the lengthy initial interview NetFlix used to gauge my movie taste, and were able to more deeply understand my shopping parameters, tastes, and the reason I arrived at their site, they would stand to gain a greater share of my wallet. If Amazon had been able to successfully recommend a book to me which I enjoyed (rather than assuming the South American literature textbooks I bought for college courses indicate a passion for Spanish authors), I would be far more likely to trust their recommendations a second time, and to begin to rely upon this functionality, visiting their store on a consistent and regular basis.

Baynote, a software firm located in Cupertino, raised $10.75 million in a second round of funding last year from Steamboat Ventures.  Its software attempts to understand customer intent by observing their actions on a website, and groups him or her into one of several customer archetypes to best deliver their anticipated needs.  The challenge, however, is that a customer’s visit may be so short as to fail to give enough evidence of intent for the software to accurately predict their intent.

Richrelevance, a San Francisco based technology startup which yesterday announced it had closed a Series B round of investment valued at $4.2 million dollars backed by Greylock Partners and Tugboat Ventures, is attempting to deliver this kind of next-generation product recommendation software. Built by David Selinger, a leader from Amazon’s recommendations team, richrelevance promises the ability to enhance a web store by personalizing the shopping experience and providing relevant, high quality product recommendations. Unfortunately, however, its technology doesn’t appear to make any massive improvements upon the flawed system in place at Amazon.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, however. It turns out the challenge of substantially improving recommendation algorithms and technology is a very considerable one. Even NetFlix, which posed a large cash reward to the tune of $1 million for any person or team which could improve the accuracy of its prediction software by 10%, has been unable to meet this seemingly modest goal after over a year and a half.

I will watch with curiosity as other companies tackle this challenge. I believe it is a field with significant growth potential, and one where I would be excited to see more innovation and expansion.  In the meantime, reasonably talented retail sales people need not worry about losing their jobs… just yet.

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