Web site customisation not for everyone

Not everyone wants their news personalised.

Cable News Network (CNN) executives, who run one of the most popular customisable news sites on the World Wide Web, said tailor-made news has become an important complement to their main news site, not a substitute.

Instead of tailoring news for each individual, CNN tailored its site to offer custom news for those who want it and general news for the rest.

"There was a time that everyone thought ... we will all take our information personalised," said Mark Bernstein, vice-president and general manager of CNN Interactive. "But people like to browse. They like interactivity."

Less than a year after the site's launch, CNN's Custom News has more than 300,000 registered subscribers and is on target with its business plan. Officials declined to discuss specific numbers but said that depending on how expenses are apportioned, Custom News is at or near break-even. The main CNN site, which doesn't require registration, has served more than 11 million unique users. Both sites are free to users.

CNN Custom News (http://CNN.com/CustomNews) lets people create their own CNN news page, incorporating subjects they have specified from among 1500 options, such as national, local, world, business, sports, weather and entertainment news. There also is a clipping service that will search for any user-defined keywords.

Personalisation is becoming an increasingly hot topic on the Web. Microsoft recently announced plans to acquire profiling company Firefly Network, which has technology to track user interests. And several "portal" Web sites such as Excite and Lycos recently beefed up their custom home pages.

The CNN site delves much deeper into news categories than the portal sites. It offers nearly 200 different countries under world news, for example, and serves up stories from more than 100 different publications and wire services as well as CNN itself.

"It makes sense to personalise across categories," said Patrick Keane, an analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York. "CNN offers more very specific news across many vertical [subject areas]."

The project is a joint venture with Oracle and uses that company's Web Application and Universal servers, as well as the ConText feature for the Universal server, which handles text analysis, retrieval and management. "It's the single biggest piece of infrastructure of any site we've got, except the main site," said Paul Holbrook, director of Internet technologies at CNN, which also hosts the CNN/SI sports and CNNfn financial sites. "Oracle came in with a very, very solid design of hardware and software. ... It scaled quite well."

The design is completely server-based, so users don't have to download any special software to use it. No complex site runs itself, so the Custom News site takes advantage of work done by editors at the main site who manually go through stories, said Dave Rickett, producer of CNN Custom News. It then "harvests" news from CNN.com and automatically loads it into the Custom News templates.

One of the things Custom News gives CNN is a better ability to respond to user feedback, he said. On the main site, for example, if someone wants more news about Chad, there isn't much the staff can do to accommodate that. But on the Custom site, CNN boosted the number of countries tracked, from roughly 90 initially to almost double that now. It also hiked the clipping service capabilities from three keywords to 10. The site also added more entertainment options.

"It's being able to listen to your users," Rickett said. "We are constantly upgrading. I have about four upgrades specced out."

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Sharon Machlis

PC World
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