ECIR 2011 Industry Day – part 1 of 2

As promised here’s a writeup of the day itself. I’ve split this into two parts.

The first presentation was from Martin Szummer of Microsoft Research on ‘Learning to Rank’. I’d seen some of the content before, presented by Mike Taylor at our own Cambridge Search Meetup, but Martin had the chance to go into more detail about a ‘recipe’ for learning to rank a set of results, using gradient descent. One application he suggested was merging lists of results from different, although related queries: for example in a situation where users don’t know how best to phrase a query, the engine can suggest alternatives (“jupiter’s mass” / “mass of jupiter”), carry out several searches and merge the results to provide a best result. Some fascinating ideas here although it may be a while before we see practical applications in enterprise search.

Doug Aberdeen of Google was next with a description of the Gmail Priority Inbox. The system looks at 300 features of email to attempt to predict what is ‘important’ email for each user – starting with a default global model (so it works ‘out of the box’) and then adjusting slightly over time. Some huge challenges here due to the scale of the problem (we all know how big Gmail is!) and also due to the fact that the team can’t debug with ‘real’ data – as everyone’s email is private. Luckily various Googlers have allowed their email accounts to be used for testing.

Richard Boulton of Celestial Navigation followed with a discussion of some practical search problems he’s encounted, in particular when working on the Artfinder website. Some good lessons here: “search is a commodity”, “a search system is never finished” and “search providers have different aims to users”. He discussed how he developed an ‘ArtistRank’ to solve problems of what exactly to return for the query ‘Leonardo’, and how eventually a four-way classification system was developed for the site. One good tip he had for debugging ranking was an ‘explain view’ showing exactly how positions in a list of results are calculated.

After a short break we had Tyler Tate, who again spoke recently in Cambridge, so I won’t repeat his slides again here. Next was Martin White of Intranet Focus, introducing his method for benchmarking search results within organisations. He suggested that search within enterprises is often in a pretty bad state – which our experience at Flax bears out – and showed a detailed checklist approach to evaluating and improving the search experience. His checklist has a theoretical maximum score of 270, sadly very few companies manage more than 50 points.

We then moved to lunch – I’ll write about the afternoon sessions in a subsequent post.

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