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E-commerce sites personalize search results to maximize profits

Websites alter results depending on whether consumers use smartphones or particular web browsers

By
12:14pm, October 23, 2014
Computer, tablet, phone

ONLINE BARGAIN  People using computers got lower prices than those browsing with smartphones on some retail and travel websites, researchers found. 

The convenience of comparing airfares at a single travel website while browsing from a smartphone is undeniable. But these modern perks can have a hidden cost: Researchers have uncovered multiple instances of travel and retail websites steering customers toward more expensive prices depending on factors such as whether customers are on a mobile phone, use a particular browser or have purchased particular items in the past.

Nine of 16 travel and retail websites, including Home Depot, Sears, Orbitz, Priceline and Expedia, personalize search results. Seven of these sites show customers only a subset of prices, researchers report.

“It's a concrete example of why you should care about companies tracking your behavior online,” says computer scientist Christo Wilson of Northeastern University in Boston, who led the study. “It affects your pocketbook.”

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