Learning Personal Preferences on Online Newspaper Articles from User Behaviors

Hidekazu Sakagami, Tomonari Kamba
C&C Research Laboratories, NEC Corporation
4-1-1 Miyazaki, Miyamae-ku, Kawasaki, Kanagawa 216, Japan
sakagami@mmp.cl.nec.co.jp, kamba@mmp.cl.nec.co.jp


This paper discusses methods by which user preferences for WWW-based newspaper articles can be learned from user behaviors. Two modes of inference were compared in an experiment: one using explicit feedback and the other using implicit feedback. In the explicit feedback mode, the users score all articles according to their relevance. In the implicit feedback mode, the user reads articles by performing scrolling and enlarging operations, and the system infers from the operations how much the user was interested in each article. Our newspaper on the WWW, called ANATAGONOMY, has a learning engine and a scoring engine on the server. The system users read daily news articles by using a WWW browser in which there is an interaction agent that monitors the user behaviors. The learning engine on the server infers user preferences from the interaction agent, and the scoring engine scores new articles and creates personalized newspaper pages based on the extracted user profiles. In an experiment, the system was able to personalize the newspaper to some extent when using only implicit feedback when some parameters were properly set, but the personalization was not as precise as it was when explicit feedback was used. By mixing explicit feedback with implicit feedback, the system could personalize newspapers quickly and precisely without requiring too much effort on the part of the users. User preferences can also be used to construct information retrieval agents or even to create cyberspace communities of the users that have similar interests. We think that the proposed technique for learning user preferences greatly enhances the value of the WWW.
Keywords:Personalization, On-line newspaper, World Wide Web, User preference

1. Introduction

With the advent of the network age, individuals have become able to easily access a huge amount of heterogeneous information, such as that available on the World Wide Web (WWW), but it is difficult to pick up really useful content from this sea of information. There are two possible approaches to solving this problem:
Search service:
the user inputs keywords and then gets search results, as with on Yahoo [I] and Lycos [II].
Personalization service:
relevant information customized for each user is delivered constantly, as with the Personal Wall Street Journal [III] and Pointcast Network [IV].
Both services are popular these days, but their aims are different. In search services, users with fairly clear objectives gather information actively whereas the systems in personalization services provide information pro-actively to users who are rather passive (Figure 1). In everyday life, people usually read newspapers and watch TV programs rather passively when they are not looking for any special information. Once they find something interesting, they search actively in order to get additional related information. As this example shows, actively gathering information and passively receiving information are complementary activities.

Figure 1. Search service and personalization service.

Information retrieval has been the subject of various studies some of which can be applied to personalization services, but these services also require techniques other than those used for active information retrieval. It is necessary, for example, that the system learn about user preferences. Users of personalization services do not want to specify what information they need, and even so, the system needs to find the information the users will be interested in and it has to show them to the users. Therefore, the system has to be able to learn user preferences precisely without requiring too much effort of the users.

This paper describes methods for extracting user preferences on daily newspaper articles. It focuses on a technique to determine user preferences, as automatically as possible, by evaluating user operations when online newspaper articles are accessed. Regarding techniques to learn user preferences, the following kinds of studies have been done targeting Netnews and other articles.

Direct extraction of user preferences:
The system asks users to register their interests in the form of keywords, topics, and so on. This technique is used in a news filtering services such as SIFT [1], developed at Stanford University, and Pointcast Network [IV]. One of the advantages of this method is the transparency of system behavior. When articles have been delivered to a user, the user can usually easily guess why each article was delivered. One problem with this method, though, is that it requires much effort on the part of the user. Human interests change as time passes. For example, people are very interested in earthquake information just after a big earthquake, but this interest gradually decreases over time. It is cumbersome for users to have to modify keywords often. Another problem is that people cannot necessarily specify what they are interested in because their interests are sometimes unconscious.
Somewhat indirect extraction of user preferences:
In the NewsWeeder [2] developed by Lang et al., the system learns user preferences by asking users to specify their interest in each article's page. When the user moves from one document page to another, he or she specifies how interesting the old page is by choosing a position on a long bar. The users thus have a greater mental load than they do when just reading documents, because they are also required to score them.
Indirect extraction of user preferences:
Morita et al. tried an experiment to anticipate user preferences on the basis of the time spent reading each article in Netnews, and they achieved good results [3]. This approach also intuitively reasonable because we tend to spend more time reading interesting articles than uninteresting ones. In their experiment, however, they asked the subjects "to do nothing but read articles", that is, "not do other things such as leaving the terminal a while to get a cup of coffee or reading newly arrived e-mail messages". These conditions show the limitations of their method. In actual situations, we often receive e-mail and telephone calls and are subjected to other interruptions. Therefore, their method is not sufficiently practical.

We will describe a method to extract user preferences by monitoring ordinary user operations such as scrolling articles. We have applied the method to our personalized newspaper on the WWW, and found that it is more practical because users do not need to stick to reading articles and can read articles as they like. Compared with the NewsWeeder, The users' mental load is greatly reduced below that what it is with the NewsWeeder because users not need to specify their interest in all articles explicitly. The user preferences derived in our system are currently used only to provide personalized layouts of the online newspaper, but can also be applied in many other systems (such as information retrieval agents) or even to creating communities of the users that have similar interests in cyberspace.

2. Anatagonomy: a personalized on-line newspaper

ANATAGONOMY, our personalized newspaper on the WWW, has an architecture similar to the Krakatoa Chronicle developed by Kamba et al. [4]. It differs from conventional WWW-based newspapers in that the server does not manage the page layout. Instead, the server has a scoring engine and a learning engine. The scoring engine helps to create a newspaper page, and the learning engine learns user profiles. The scoring engine computes the importance of each article by comparing the article's document vector (words and their frequencies of occurrence) and the user profile. Roughly speaking, an article gets a high score for a user when it has a document vector similar to the user's profile (Figure 2(a)). This importance has a value that is called an article score. The user profile is a set of words and their weights. For example, if a user is interested in articles featuring the word "Clinton," the word is given a high weighting in the user's profile. Conversely, if a user shows little interest in articles related to baseball, the word "baseball" will be given a low or negative weight. The learning engine builds a user profile when the user scores a set of articles showing how interesting each article is (Figure 2(b)). Roughly speaking, a word in a user profile is given a high weighting when the word appears frequently in high-scored articles. Both the scoring engine and the learning engine were developed by Nakamura et al. [5].

Figure 2.Scoring engine and learning engine.

Figure 3. Example of the newspaper layout.

Figure 4. Example of an enlarged article.

After the scoring engine scores the day's articles for a user, an interaction agent on the client (which is a Java applet downloaded from the server) creates a newspaper page layout based on the article scores. Articles that have high scores are allotted prominent locations and large screen spaces. This client-server architecture provides the following features to our system.

3. Experiment

3.1 Preliminary Experiment

We asked thirteen users (who already understood operations needed to read articles on our system) to read thirty of a day's articles on ANATAGONOMY. We asked them to then rank all the articles between A (very relevant) and E (not relevant at all). Regarding rank A as 90 points, B as 70 points, C as 50 points, D as 30 points, and E as 10 points, we calculated the averages for scores given by the users.

We then examined the relationship between the user operations on articles and the scores given to the articles (Table 1). According to Table 1, For all users, the average scores for the scrolled articles were higher than the average scores for all articles. The average scores for the enlarged articles were also higher than the average scores for all articles. In addition, articles that were both scrolled and enlarged got higher scores than articles that were either scrolled or enlarged. Operation logs indicated that users tended to first scroll articles and then enlarge them after finding that they were worth reading in entirety.

Table 1. Relationship between operations and scores (total number of articles was 30).
Number of subjects 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Number of
scrolled articles
23 7 10 8 3 0 11 12 25 7 14 9 7
Number of
enlarged articles
4 0 0 0 7 0 9 0 5 0 0 2 0
Number of both
scrolled & enlarged articles
3 0 0 0 3 0 1 0 5 0 0 0 0
Average scores of
all articles
49.3 44.7 22.0 38.7 33.4 28.7 37.3 37.3 51.0 15.0 45.7 45.3 36.0
Average scores of
scrolled articles
52.6 70.0 32.0 50.0 90.0 - 46.4 70.0 57.6 32.9 50.0 58.9 37.6
Average scores of
enlarged articles
60.0 - - - 78.6 - 45.6 - 66.0 - - 70.0 -
Average scores of both
scrolled & enlarged articles
70.0 - - - 90.0 - 50.0 - 66.0 - - - -

We therefore decided to give bonus points for the "scroll" and "enlarge" operations. When the user does these operations on an article, bonus points are added to the article's score and the new score is sent to the server. That is, these operations have the same effect that raising an article's score by using a score bar does (Figure 5). Conversely, when the user neither scrolls nor enlarges an article, the same effect is then as when the user decreases the article's score. When the user changes an article's score by using a score bar, we call this explicit feedback. And when the system automatically changes an article's score according to the user's ordinary operations (such as "scroll" or "enlarge"), or even according to "no operations," we call this implicit feedback.

Figure 5. Two types of feedback.

3.2 Comparison of explicit feedback and implicit feedback

We compared the personalization effect of the explicit feedback mode with that of the implicit feedback mode. Fifteen users who already understood how to read articles on ANATAGONOMY were divided into the following three groups, each of which included five subjects.
Group A:
The subjects of this group gave no implicit feedback. Instead, all subjects were asked to score all articles by using a score bar each day.
Group B:
The subjects of this group gave bonus points. When a subject scrolled or enlarged an article, the system added 10 points to the article's score. When both operations occurred, 20 points were added. Even when the user performed the same operation more than once, only 10 points were added. The score for an article that was neither scrolled nor enlarged was decreased by 10 points. The subjects were not allowed to give explicit feedback.
Group C:
The subjects of this group also gave only implicit feedback, but the bonus was 30 points.

We downloaded about thirty articles every day from external news sites and asked the subjects to read them for six days. We also asked the users by e-mail to give all articles rankings between A (very relevant) and E (not relevant at all). Figure 6(a) shows the chronological change in the averaged difference between the score orders anticipated by the system and the rank orders given by the subjects. The difference is normalized with the total number of articles. To get the score orders anticipated by the system, the user profiles accumulated by the previous days were used. To get the rank orders given by the subjects, the ranks the user specified between A and E were used as the first sorting criterion. Within the same rank, the scores anticipated by the system were used as the second sorting criterion.

(a) Difference between the orders anticipated by the system and the ranks given by the subjects (chronological change).

(b) System anticipation and user rating of Group B on the 6th day.

(c) System anticipation and user rating of Group A on the 4th day.

Figure 6. Comparison of explicit feedback and implicit feedback.

As Figure 6(a) shows, in Group A (explicit feedback mode), the differences between the score orders anticipated by the system and the rank orders given by the users decreased day by day and almost stabilized within three days from the beginning of the experiment. In Group B (10-point bonus), the difference between the score orders anticipated by the system and the rank orders given by the subjects decreased a great deal on the first day, but the difference did not decrease very much after that. In Group C (30-point bonus), the difference between the two orders was quite large and did not stabilize. The system regarded the subjects in Group C to be interested in too many topics, since some articles were given extremely high implicit scores, and the anticipated scores were too high compared with the subjects' actual interests. Illustrating that personalization worked well in Group B, Figure 6(b) shows the relationship between the order of the article scores anticipated by the system and the user's ratings. In short, this graph shows that articles given high scores by the system's anticipation were also given high scores by the users. We can observe the following things from these graphs.

4. Discussion and follow-up experiment

Although the experiment in the previous section shows that we can infer user preference to some extent when using only implicit feedback when the bonus points are properly set, implicit feedback is inferior to explicit feedback. During the experiment a subject provided us with the following clues to solving this problem.
He said:
Implicit feedback is effective but the user might sometimes want to specify his or her interest in an article explicitly. For example, sometimes the user may find a very interesting article and may want to increase the article's score to the highest point. And sometimes the user will want to decrease an article's score after reading through the complete article because after reading it he or she finds it irrelevant.

We therefore expected that the use of both explicit feedback and implicit feedback would be very effective. The user's mental load should be lower than in the explicit feedback mode because users do not need to specify interest in all articles explicitly. They will give explicit feedback only when they wish to show explicit interest. We thus tried a follow-up experiment over six days for the following group described below.

Group D:
The subjects in this group, like those in Group B, were given a 10-point bonus. The subject could also give explicit feedback by using score bars.

The results were as follows:

(a) Difference between the orders anticipated by the system and the ranks given by the subjects (chronological change).

(b) System anticipation and user rating of Group D on the 5th day
Figure 7: Mixing explicit feedback and implicit feedback.

These results show that the newspaper could be personalized accurately, quickly although users explicitly specified scores for only one third of all the articles.

5. Conclusion and Future Work

We described a method for personalizing an on-line newspaper by learning users' preferences from their operations on articles. It was shown that the newspaper could be successfully personalized by mixing explicit feedback and implicit feedback. Explicit feedback means that the user gives scores to articles, and implicit feedback means that the system automatically infers the user's preferences from the user's operations. Providing implicit feedback greatly decreases the users' efforts, whereas providing explicit feedback helps the system to infer user preferences accurately.

In our current system, the extracted preferences are used only to provide personalized layouts of the newspaper, but there are various other occasions in which the preferences can be used effectively.

For example, the personal preferences will also make it possible for an online newspaper to provide personalized advertisements that match each user's interest. In search services such as the directory service, the user will be able to get information that matches his or her taste without typing keywords. Another example that uses these preferences effectively would be a "matching agent," which is an agent that finds the users who have similar interests by comparing the user preferences. This agent will be useful for constructing "communities" in cyberspace. Another advantage of the preferences extracted from the user's natural operations is that they sometimes include a user's unconscious or subconscious preferences. In the proposed method, the keywords are not defined by the users but are collected from the articles that the users get interested in, and their importance values are modified automatically. When we ourselves used this system continuously, some articles were given high scores by the system although they do not seem to fit is our interests at first sight. Even in such cases, however, we often found that they included topics related to our interests when we read them carefully. This implies that a user's unconscious or subconscious preferences can suggest important topics that would likely be missed if these preferences were ignored. Therefore, they will be especially useful for constructing the communities of the users that have similar interests. These are only some cases in which the preferences can be used efficiently, and we think that the proposed method for learning user preferences greatly enhances the value of the WWW.


ANATAGONOMY is named after a Japanese word "ANATA-GONOMI," which means "as you like." This is because our system is intended to create a newspaper that is customized to the user's preferences.


  1. Yan, T.W, and Garcia-Molina, H. (1995): "SIFT - A Tool for Wide-Area Information Dissemination", USENIX Technical Conference, pp. 177-186.
  2. Ken Lang: "NewsWeeder: Learning to Filter NetNews", Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML'95), pp. 331-339 (1995).
  3. Morita, M., and Shinoda, Y. (1994): "Information Filtering Based on User Behavior Analysis and Best Match Text Retrieval", Proceedings of the 17th Annual International ACM-SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval, pp. 272-281.
  4. Kamba, T., Bharat, K., Albers, M.C. (1995): "The Krakatoa Chronicle - An Interactive, Personalized Newspaper on the Web -", Fourth International World Wide Web Conference Proceedings, pp. 159-170.
  5. Nakamura, A., Mamizuka, H., Toba, H., Abe, N. (1995): "Learning personal preference functions using boolean-variable real-valued multivariate polynominals", 52nd National Convention of the Information Processing Society of Japan (in Japanese).
  6. Kamba,T., Sakagami, H. and Koseki, Y. (1997): "ANATAGONOMY: A Personalized Newspaper on the WWW," International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Special Issue on Innovative Applications of the World Wide Web (to be appeared in March 1997).


  1. Yahoo : http://www.yahoo.com/
  2. Lycos: http://www.lycos.com/
  3. The Personal Wall Street Journal: (http://www.ptech.wsj.com/)
  4. Pointcast Network: http://www.poincast.com/

Return to Top of Page
Return to Technical Papers Index