Contextual Content for Anonymous Users? Here’s How.

Contextual Websites for Anonymous Users

In the first post in this series on contextualization, Three Keys to an Exceptional User Experience, we defined key terms around personalization and showed briefly how that can work with an example from Chase bank. Now we will look at a popular request for contextualization or personalization of content when the website user is anonymous.

The general premise is to show users coming to your website content relevant to them. A common example is on a travel website - if you know I am in Seattle, pre-fill my departure preference, show me an image from Seattle, localize the experience for me.

Drupal View and Edit tabs

Or another great example that has been around for years is online advertising. If you have experimented with ad servers or even AdWords or Facebook ads - they have very rich ad targeting tools. This can let you show different content (different ads in this case) to a select geographic location, a select age group, select sites they have visited, and many other demographic criteria. Some of these are known by any web system - you have all the tools to do this if you have a CMS powered website.

Click on to see this in action. They are inferring a number of things:

  1. They know I am in Seattle, so provide only Seattle-based offers.

  2. They know it is summer here and provide a summer promo.

  3. They seem to have some basic demographic data: Male, Age, Family, and they are offering promotions most relevant to my demographic. These are likely from retargeting profiles based on my visits to other sites (since I have embarrassingly never used a Groupon).


There are three main approaches to contextualization of content via the CMS.

Contextualized Content Method #1: Detection

When an “anonymous” or guest user accesses your website, they are not really entirely anonymous. You actually know many things about them to help to contextualize the experience. You know their screen size, you know their device (desktop/mobile), you know their general location, you can know the search criteria used, you know their language preferences—and within 1-2 clicks you know exactly what they came for. This type of data provides you a great opportunity to localize an experience for your customers.

Language / Region

In the content management system, you can set up localized versions of each page for different languages. A basic functionality of the CMS will detect the language and country preference of the browser. Behind the scenes, there will be the English page node and sub-language. This is not just text though, all content - images used on each localized version of the site can be international to reflect the country the users are located in.

Screen Size

Detection of the size of the screen is used to serve a contextualized UX for mobile or desktop. This is the heart of responsive design. The most important feature of any mobile site is delivering a contextual navigation relevant to the use characteristics of the device, so the user can quickly find what they are looking for. This allows you to simplify the overall navigation for mobile and bring forward (in terms of navigation, graphics, content) the most mobile-relevant experience.

Location Detection

Expand the concept of localized content—many sites still have “splitter” pages for their first user experience. Our client Seattle Gymnastics uses this as their landing page. Because we now know, at a longitude/latitude level the location via HTML5 or via a mobile device the exact location—we can simply detect the browser’s location and route them to the Gymnastics location that is nearest to them at that moment, and get them to the gym (of course it's best to always provide an easy override so users can set their preference or change locations).

seattle gym

Search Terms / Referrals

One way to contextualize most any content is to use the referring search terms. This works because searches used from Google are known by the first access to your site. Say you want to deliver a contextual experience for dog people vs. cat people (we had a prospective client request this). You could definitely come right out and ask the user if they are a cat person or dog person on the first page, like the one shown above.

However when I do a search for a specific breed of cat in Google, that information is passed as a referring URL to your website as the search criteria. You can see that same data in Google Analytics. As a demo, we simply created a small module, a database record of common cat and dog breeds. For example, a user searches for Collie information, clicks on a link into our site, the referring search criteria matches a breed on our list, we then set a persistent cookie that would take the user to the dog section and show images of dog breeds. This was done generally but certainly could have been done even at the breed level.

Issues With Contextualization

As you might expect, this generates a fairly large matrix of content requirements. If there are already large sections of your site devoted to cats and dogs, it’s pretty much just URL routing. Say you are going to show pictures of Seattle if the user arriving at your site is from Seattle—and want to do that for every major city—you have just opened a large content management project. Technically a breeze, but the content consideration can be considerable.

So we often try to find a general ground—for example only the top 10 searched cities, while everyone else goes to a default. Or go to a regionalized solution like Northwest, Southwest, etc, for a more composite experience. Again, this is to simply reduce the content management effort. There's nothing technically difficult about serving content at the neighborhood level, but if you wanted to get that granular it's just more to manage on the CMS side (and of course we make that as easy as possible for you). A simplified approach would be to focus on the top 10 searches, or to focus on regional imagery. This simplifies the CMS management and still offers some level of customization.

Technical Bits

Modern browsers, HTML5, server sessions, location detection - all provide much of the facility to do rich contextualization for your “anonymous” users. Session tracking in the CMS and cookies allow us to store those preferences for each guest and preserve the experience for customers.

Beyond being a cooler experience, personalization leads to customer loyalty, stronger brand affiliation and it's not just whether a site should offer personalized content, it's how much and how to create the best possible customer experience.

Coming up next…. Personalization, the next level of contextualization when a user is logged in. But, if you have any questions about Contextual Websites for Anonymous Users, please feel free to contact us directly or connect with us on social!