Enterprise Search Meetup: exploratory search, TravelMatch and Stephen Arnold

Last night I went to another excellent Enterprise Search London Meetup, at Skinkers near London Bridge. I’d been at the Online show all day, which was rather tiring, so it was great to sit down with beer and nibbles and hear some excellent speakers.

Max Wilson kicked off with a talk on exploratory search and ‘searching for leisure’. His Search Interface Inspector looks like a fascinating resource, and we heard about how he and his team have been constructing a taxonomy for the different kinds of search people do, using Twitter as a data source.

Martina Schell was next with details of Travel Match, a holiday search engine that’s trying to do for holidays what our customer Mydeco is doing for interior design: scrape/feed/gather as much holiday data as you can, put it all into a powerful search engine and build innovative interfaces on top. They’ve tried various interfaces including a ‘visual search’, but after much user testing have reined back their ambitions somewhat – however they’re still unique in allowing some very complex queries of their data. Interestingly, one challenge they identified is how to inform users that one choice (say, airport to fly from) may affect the available range of other choices (say, destinations) – apparently users often click repeatedly on ‘greyed-out’ options, unsure as to why they’re not working…

The inimitable Stephen Arnold concluded the evening with a realistic treatment of the current fashion for ‘real-time’ search. His point was that unless you’re Google, with their fibre-connected, hardware-accelerated gigascale architecture, you’re not going to be able to do real-time web search or anything close to it; on a smaller scale, for financial trading, military and other serious applications you again need to rely on the hardware – so for proper real-time (that means very close to zero latency), your engineering capability, not your software capability is what counts. I’m inclined to agree – I trained as an electronic engineer and worked on digital audio, back when this was also only possible with clever hardware design. Of course, eventually the commodity hardware gets fast enough to move away from specialised devices, and at this point even the laziest coder can create responsive systems, but we’re far away from that point. Perhaps the marketing departments of some search companies should take note – if you say you can do real-time indexing, we’re not going to believe you.

Thanks again to Tyler Tate and all at TwigKit for continuing to organise and support this excellent event.

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