Search Solutions 2012 – a review

Last Thursday I spent the day at the British Computer Society’s Search Solutions event, run by their Information Retrieval Specialist Group. Unlike some events I could mention, this isn’t a forum for sales pitches, over-inflated claims or business speak – just some great presentations on all aspects of search and some lively networking or discussion. It’s one of my favourite events of the year.

Milad Shokouhi of Microsoft Research started us off showing us how he’s worked on query trend analysis for Bing: he showed us how some queries are regular, some spike and go and some spike and remain – and how these trends can be modelled in various ways. Alex Jaimes of Yahoo! Barcelona talked about a human centred approach to search – I agree with his assertion that “we’re great at adapting to bad technology” – still sadly true for many search interfaces! Some of the demographic approaches have led to projects such as Yahoo! Clues which is worth a look.

Martin White of Intranet Focus was up next with some analysis of recent surveys and research, leading to some rather doom-laden conclusions about just how few companies are investing sufficiently in search. Again some great quotes: “Information Architects think they’ve failed if users still need a search engine” and a plea for search vendors (and open source exponents) to come clean about what search can and can’t do. Emma Bayne of the National Archives was next with a description of their new Discovery catalogue, a similar presentation to the one she gave earlier in the year at Enterprise Search Europe. Kristian Norling of Findwise finished with a laconic and amusing treatment of the results from Findwise’s survey on enterprise search – indicating that those who produce systems that users are “very satisfied” usually do the same things, such as regular user testing and employing a specialist internal search team.

Stella Dextre Clark talked next about a new ISO standard for thesauri, taxonomies and their interopability with other vocabularies – some great points on the need for thesauri to break down language barriers, help retrieval in enterprise situations where techniques such as PageRank aren’t so useful and to access data from decades past. Leo Sauermann was next with what was my personal favourite presentation of the day, about a project to develop a truly semantic search engine both for KDE Linux and currently the Cloud. This system, if more widely adopted, promises a true revolution in search, as relationships between data objects are stored directly by the underlying operating system. I spoke next about our Clade taxonomy/classification system and our Flax Media Monitor, which I hope was interesting.

Nicholas Kemp of DSTL was up next exploring how they research new technologies and approaches which might be of interest to the defence sector, followed by Richard Morgan of Funnelback on how to empower intranet searchers with ways to improve relevance. He showed how Funnelback’s own intranet allows users to adjust multiple factors that affect relevance – of course it’s debatable how these may be best applied to customer situations.

The day ended with a ‘fishbowl’ discussion during which a major topic was of course the Autonomy/HP debacle – there seemed to be a collective sense of relief that perhaps now marketing and hype wouldn’t dominate the search market as much as it had previously…but perhaps also that’s just my wishful thinking! All in all this was as ever an interesting and fun day and my thanks to the IRSG organisers for inviting me to speak. Most of the presentations should be available online soon.

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