Nov. 30, 2010— -- Let the gift-giving grief begin.
Every year around this time, holiday shoppers fret and fuss over what to get their friends and family, scouring websites and store shelves in a frantic search for the most fitting favors of the season.
But this year, a few new Web tools offer to be a Santa's helper, whispering gift ideas in your ear.
Using profile information pulled from Facebook, these websites try to match your friends' preferences and interests with products you can buy online.
"Every e-commerce site has this problem of gifting, and it's a significant chunk of e-commerce," said Chris Dixon, CEO of Hunch.com, a recommendation engine that recently launched a social gift finder tool with Gifts.com.
But now that social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, have helped turn the Internet from just a "Web of cookies and computers" into a Web of people, he said, companies like his can add a layer of tools that analyze people and their preferences to personalize the Internet – and their purchases.
Hunch.com, for example, asks users a series of questions to develop a "taste profile" for them, which it then uses to help make recommendations about anything from books and movies to restaurants and gadgets.
Its latest project, in partnership with Gifts.com, combines Facebook profile data with its own taste-based algorithms to help shoppers find potential gift ideas for friends and family.
Once you allow the site to import information from your Facebook account, it looks for what your Facebook friends have "liked" or identified as interests.
It then builds a list of possible gifts for each friend, which you can refine by answering questions based on what you know about them.
The gift finder covers the basic demographic questions regarding, for example, gender and age. But it also goes a few steps further, asking about the person's favorite Olympic sports, political affiliation and even their thoughts on alien abduction.
Those questions might seem odd, but Dixon said they are especially predictive of people's tastes.
Gift Finder Makes Guesses From Facebook Info
"What we do is take that sort of basic information and then, using kind of a large database, make inferences," Dixon said. "We're able to fill in a lot of the gaps."
So let's say your brother has "liked" a "Battlestar Galactica" page on Facebook, the gift finder could generate results that include other science fiction TV shows as well, he said.
Even if a friend has never "liked" anything at all on Facebook, the gift finder will still create a list of gift possibilities based on what friends of that person have "liked" online.
Etsy, Amazon and eBay, together with Facebook, have launched similar tools that help shoppers spot gifts for friends.
"On Facebook, you and your friends, for the past however many months, have been "liking" different things across the Web and building this type of profile on Facebook," said Malorie Lucich, a Facebook spokeswoman. "So in taking that to a site like Etsy, all of a sudden you're given all these recommendations and products are surfaced based on stuff you've already been liking."
Similar to Hunch.com's gift finder, these tools allow online shoppers to import their Facebook information and then browse lists of gift ideas based on what their friends have "liked" online.
On Etsy, for example, if a friend has indicated that she likes Julia Child, a vintage cook book might appear. If a friend likes Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, pins and paraphernalia with his name and picture might pop up as suggested gifts.
But these sites don't ask questions to refine the lists and they don't infer as much about a gift recipient's preferences. If a Facebook friend has never "liked" anything online, the site will simply say that no recommendations are available for that individual.
Erica Swallow, a reporter for the social media blog Mashable, said that while these kinds of recommendation sites are the next step for an increasingly social and smart Internet, they aren't without their drawbacks.
Not only do some of the Web tools seem spotty in extrapolating suggestions from Facebook information, she said, Facebook "likes" may not be the best foundation for gift-giving to begin with.
Recommendation Engines Can Be New Way to Browse
"We all know that a Facebook profile doesn't tell who you are, it tells who you want others to see you as," she said. "Real-life interactions with a person and being close to them is going to be better than any of these systems."
While Hunch.com's system lets users refine lists of gift options with questions about potential recipients, she said, it seems that it still gives a disproportionate amount of weight to different preferences.
For example, Swallow said, once she indicated that a friend was a "foodie," it seemed the list of gift suggestions was overwhelmed with food-, wine- or beer-related items.
On Etsy, she said, while the shopping tool helped make the website's giant array of unique, handmade products more accessible, it also flubbed a few times in interpreting Facebook information.
For a friend who indicated that she likes the TV show "House," Etsy's shopping tool suggested a number of paintings and other handcrafts featuring actual houses.
Still, she said, the sites do help jog users' memories about their friends' interests and they help unearth interesting gift ideas.
She said the eBay tool is particularly innovative because it not only helps suggest gifts, it helps shoppers coordinate joint gifts online.
Hunch.com's Dixon said that as people use the gift finder, which launched about two weeks ago, it will get better at pairing people's preferences with Gift.com's inventory.
"It's about halfway to being fully trained," he said.
He also said that the products on the site, which target a mainstream audience, may not necessarily line up with the early adopters and tech writers first reviewing the site.
"It's also a discovery tool," he said. "It can be used as another way to browse – a serendipitous way to browse."