ASP.NET 4.0 : Personalization - Personalizing Web Visits, Personalization in ASP.NET

3/3/2013 8:10:58 PM

1. Personalizing Web Visits

When the Internet and the Web first began gaining popularity, most sites contained only static content. That is, they offered only text, graphics, and perhaps links to other pages. The early Web-surfing community consisted of only the few folks who knew how to use browsers to peer into the contents of those early Web servers.

Until the Web began exploding with interactive sites, there was really no need for Web sites to provide anything but generalized content. However, savvy businesspeople know that tailoring and targeting content to specific individuals are good for business.

For example, the next time you go online to shop or visit a subscription-type site, take note of how much the site knows about you. Very often, if at some point you provided login information, the site will greet you by name. It might even point you to information or products that might interest you. These are examples of how a Web site can be personalized.

In the early days, any personalization of a site resulted from code you wrote, such as code to manage user preferences in cookies or code to store personal information in databases. In addition to simply storing and managing the personal information, you had to integrate the personal information management with the authentication and authorization scheme you decided to use. That is, once you authenticated the user, you then could tailor your pages according to his or her personal information.

ASP.NET now includes services for personalizing a Web site to suit a particular client's taste. There's no reason you can't write your own database and services to provide this functionality. However, as with other services, ASP.NET provides a way to do this with consistency and so that you do not have to write all the code yourself.

2. Personalization in ASP.NET

Although it might not be surprising to find that the ASP.NET personalization services follow the same provider pattern as do authentication and site mapping, defining a Web site's personalization facilities begins by defining user profiles. This section starts there.

User Profiles

The heart of the new ASP.NET personalization service is the user profile. A user profile defines what kind of personal information your Web site needs. For example, you might want to know personal data about users of your Web site, such as name, gender, number of visits to the site, and so forth. User profiles are also handy for storing user preferences for your site. For example, you might include a theme as part of a personal profile so that users can tailor the pages to their particular tastes.

Once the personalization properties are defined in web.config, a component in ASP.NET has to be able to read them and use them. That job is handled by ASP.NET personalization providers.

Personalization Providers

Providers hide the infrastructural code necessary to support the service, yet they allow you to choose different underlying storage media with little impact on your site. Perhaps you start your site using XML files for storing data but later move to Microsoft SQL Server or you have legacy authentication databases you want to connect to your ASP.NET site. ASP.NET personalization is no different. In fact, ASP.NET includes two personalization providers out of the box: a profile provider for custom user data, and a personalization provider for Web Parts. 

ASP.NET defines the fundamental provider capabilities in an abstract class named PersonalizationProvider. Those capabilities include loading and saving personalization properties and managing their relationship to any Web Parts used in a site. ASP.NET provides a default implementation of these capabilities in a concrete class named SqlPersonalizationProvider, which is derived from PersonalizationProvider.

Using Personalization

Using personalization is straightforward. You define personalization properties in web.config. ASP.NET synthesizes a class for you to use to manage personalization settings. Then, profile information is available in much the same way as session state is available.

Defining Profiles in Web.Config

Your site's profile schema is defined in web.config as name/type pairs. Imagine that in the course of designing your site, you decide you would like to track the following information about a particular user:

  • User name (a string)

  • Gender (a Boolean value)

  • Visit count (an integer)

  • Birthday (a date)

Defining these properties is a matter of specifying them in web.config. A definition for the properties just mentioned might look like the following in web.config:

   <profile automaticSaveEnabled="true" >
         <add name="NumVisits" type="System.Int32"/>
         <add name="UserName" type="System.String"/>
         <add name="Gender" type="System.Boolean">
         <add name="Birthday" type="System.DateTime">

Once defined in the web.config file, you can use the profile in the site through the Profile property found in the current HttpContext (and also through the Page base class).

Using Profile Information

To use the profile in your Web site, you access it in much the same way you might access session state. The Session member is a name/value dictionary that holds arbitrary information tied to a particular session. Versions 2, 3, and 3.5 of the ASP.NET compiler actually synthesize a profile class based on the schema defined in the web.config file. This is no longer available in ASP.NET 4, where accessing profile state information is done through the ProfileBase class using name/value pairs.

The ASP.NET class representing the profile information defined in web.config is named ProfileBase. You can access the profile properties using the GetPropertyValue and SetPropertyValue methods like so:

protected void Page_Load(object sender, EventArgs e)
  ProfileBase profile = HttpContext.Current.Profile;
  string name = (string)profile.GetPropertyValue("Name");
  if (name != null)
  Response.Write("Hello " + name);
  DateTime dateTime = (DateTime)profile.GetPropertyValue("Birthday");
  Response.Write("Your birthday is " +

Saving Profile Changes

The preceding code snippet assumes that there is already personalization information associated with the user. To insert profile data for a particular user, simply set the properties of the Profile object. For example, imagine a page that includes a handler for saving the profile. It might look something like this:

protected void ProfileSaveClicked(object sender, EventArgs e)
{  ProfileBase profile = HttpContext.Current.Profile;
  profile.SetPropertyValue("Name", this.TextBoxName.Text);



The easiest way to ensure that the personalization properties persist is to set automaticSaveEnabled to true. Personal profile data is then saved automatically by the provider.

Alternatively, you can call Profile.Save as necessary to save the personalization properties manually. In addition to saving and loading profiles, you can also delete the profile for a specific user by calling Profile.DeleteProfile.

Profiles and Users

Profile information is associated with the current user based on the identity of the user. By default, ASP.NET uses the User.Identity.Name in the current HttpContext as the key to store data. Because of this, profiles are generally available only for authenticated users.

However, ASP.NET supports anonymous profiles as well. As you might expect, this is also configured in web.config. The default tracking mechanism for anonymous profiles is to use cookies. However, you can direct ASP.NET to use a mangled URL. A mangled URL is one in which a key identifying the particular client is embedded in the URL used to post requests back to the server.

The following exercise illustrates using personalization profiles based on the user's login ID.

Using profiles

  1. Create a new Web Application project. Name the project MakeItPersonal.

  2. Microsoft Visual Studio creates a local database including the proper tables to make personalization work.

  3. Update web.config to include some profile properties, which should be placed in the existing <profile> element. The example here includes a user name, a theme, and a birth date. The following example shows that you can group and nest profile structures in a profile declaration using the group element. Visual Studio adds a <profile> section to the web.config file. Add the configuration information between the <properties> beginning and ending node.

            <add name="AspNetSqlProfileProvider" ... />
          <properties >
            <add name="Theme" type="System.String"/>
            <add name="Name" type="System.String"/>
            <add name="Birthdate" type="System.DateTime"/>
            <group name="Address">
                <add name="StreetAddress" type="System.String"/>
                <add name="City" type="System.String"/>
                <add name="State" type="System.String"/>
                <add name="ZipCode" type="System.String"/>


    This example uses the authenticated user name as the key for locating personalization information. However, ASP.NET supports anonymous personalization. That is, ASP.NET supports personalization information for anonymous users—but tracks the users with a cookie. You can add support for anonymous personalization tracking by setting the anonymousIdentification element to true and specifying cookie parameters like this:

    <anonymousIdentification enabled="true"
        cookieless="UseDeviceProfile" />

    In addition to setting up anonymous access in web.config, you need to set the [allowAnonymous] attribute for the properties.

    By configuring the site this way and adding the allowAnonymous attribute to properties in the profile information, ASP.NET will store the personalization settings based on a cookie it generates when a user first hits the site.

  4. Borrow the Default and SeeingRed themes from the MasterPageSite project . This allows the user to pick the theme. First, add Default and SeeingRed folders to the application's Themes directory. Then, right-click each of the theme folders and click Add Existing Item. 

  5. Borrow the UseThemes.aspx and .cs files from the MasterPageSite project. If you place them in a separate folder (for example, perhaps a folder named Secured), you can manage access rights to the folder.

  6. Update the Default.aspx page. This is where users will enter profile information.

    Add text boxes for the name, address, city, state, and zip code.

    Add a drop-down list box populated with Default and SeeingRed items to be used for selecting the theme.

    Also add a calendar control to pick the birth date.

  7. Add a button that the user can click to submit profile information. Add a handler to input these values into the profile. Double-click the button to add the handler.

    The input screen should look something like this:

    image with no caption


    This example uses the authenticated user name as the key for storing personalization values. Use the ASP.NET Configuration Utility to apply Forms Authentication to this application . Also add at least one user so that you have one to personalize. The generated project will give you a login page under the Accounts folder. Add a Login.aspx screen to the site and modify the site's access rules to enforce authentication so that you can see the personalization information being stored and retrieved.

  8. Update Page_Load to display profile information (if it's there). Grab the profile object and set each of the text boxes and the calendar control.

    using System.Web.Profile;
    public partial class _Default : System.Web.UI.Page
      protected void Page_Load(object sender, EventArgs e)
        if (!this.IsPostBack)
          ProfileBase profile = HttpContext.Current.Profile;
          string theme = (string)profile.GetPropertyValue("Theme");
          this.TextBoxName.Text = (string)profile.GetPropertyValue("Name");
          this.TextBoxAddress.Text =
          this.TextBoxCity.Text = (string)profile.GetPropertyValue("Address.City"); 
          this.TextBoxState.Text =  
          this.TextBoxZipCode.Text = (string)profile.GetPropertyValue("Address.ZipCode");
          this.DropDownList1.SelectedValue =  
          this.Calendar1.SelectedDate = (DateTime)profile.GetPropertyValue("Birthdate");
  9. Update the profile submission handler to store the profile information:

    public partial class _Default : System.Web.UI.Page
      protected void ButtonSubmitProfile_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
        if (this.User.Identity.IsAuthenticated)
          ProfileBase profile = HttpContext.Current.Profile;
          profile.SetPropertyValue("Theme", "SeeingRed");
          profile.SetPropertyValue("Name", this.TextBoxName.Text);
          profile.SetPropertyValue("Address.StreetAddress", this.TextBoxAddress.Text);
          profile.SetPropertyValue("Address.City", this.TextBoxCity.Text);
          profile.SetPropertyValue("Address.State", this.TextBoxState.Text);
          profile.SetPropertyValue("Address.ZipCode", this.TextBoxZipCode.Text);
          profile.SetPropertyValue("Theme", this.DropDownList1.SelectedValue);
          profile.SetPropertyValue("Birthdate", this.Calendar1.SelectedDate);
  10. Finally, update the UseThemes.aspx page to use the theme. Override the page's OnPreInit method. Have the code apply the theme as specified by the profile:

    protected override void OnPreInit(EventArgs e)
      ProfileBase profile = HttpContext.Current.Profile;  
      if (profile != null)
        String strTheme = (string)profile.GetPropertyValue("Theme");
        if (strTheme != null &&
          strTheme.Length > 0)
          this.Theme = strTheme;
  11. Add a Hyperlink control to the Default.aspx page. Set the Text property to View Themes and set the NavigateURL property to point to the UseThemes.aspx page. When users surf to the page, they should be able to enter the profile information and submit it.

    After their initial visit, the profile is available whenever they hit the site. The following graphic shows the profile information being displayed in the default page:

    image with no caption
  12. When users visit the UseThemes.aspx page, the page should use the theme that each user selected in the profile. The following graphic shows the UseThemes.aspx page using the SeeingRed theme pulled from the profile:

    image with no caption
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