Search Solutions 2013, a review

Yesterday was the always interesting Search Solutions one day conference held by the BCS IRSG in London, a mix of talks on different aspects of search. The first presentation was by Behshad Behzadi of Google on Conversational Search, where he showed a speech-capable search interface that allowed a ‘conversation’ with the search engine – context being preserved – so the query “where are Italian restaurants in Chelsea” followed by “no I prefer Chinese” would correctly return results about Chinese restaurants. The demo was impressive and we can expect to see more of this kind of technology as smartphone adoption rises. Wim Nijmeijer of Coveo followed with details of how their own custom connectors to a multitude of repositories could enable Complex enterprise search delivered in a day. This of course assumes that no complex mapping of fields or schemas from the source to the search engine index is necessary, which I suspect it often is – I’m not alone in being slightly suspicious of the supposed timescale. Nikolaos Nanas from Thessaly in Greece then presented on Adaptive Information Filtering: from theory to practise which I found particularly interesting as it described filtering documents against a user’s interest with the latter modelled by an adaptive, weighted network – he showed the Noowit personalised magazine application as an example. With over 1000 features per user and no language specific requirements this is a powerful idea.

After a short break we continued with a talk by Henning Rode on CV Search at TextKernel. He described a simple yet powerful UI for searching CVs (resumes) with autosuggest and automatic field recognition (type in “Jav” and the system suggests “Java” and knows this is a programming language or skill). He is also working on systems to autogenerate queries from job vacancies using heuristics. We’ve worked in the recruitment space ourselves so it was interesting to hear about their approach, although the technical detail was light. Following Henning was Dermot Frost talking about Information Preservation and Access at the Digital Repository of Ireland and their use of open source technology including Solr and Blacklight to build a search engine with a huge variety of content types, file formats and metadata standards across the items they are trying to digitally preserve. Currently this is a relatively small collection of data but they are planning to scale up over the next few years: this talk reminded me a little of last year‘s by Emma Bayne of the UK’s National Archive.

After lunch we began a session named Understanding the User, beginning with Filip Radlinski of Microsoft Research. He discussed Sensitive Online Search Evaluation (with as a test collection) and how interleaved results is a powerful technique for avoiding bias. Next was Mounia Lalmas of Yahoo! Labs on what makes An Engaging Click (although unfortunately I had to pop out for a short while so I missed most of what I am sure was a fascinating talk!). Mags Hanley was next on Understanding users search intent with examples drawn from her work at TimeOut – the three main lessons being to know the content in context, the time of year and the users’ mental model in context. Interestingly she showed how the most popular facets used differed across TimeOut’s various international sites – in Paris the top facet was perhaps unsurprisingly ‘cuisine’, in London it was ‘date’.

After another short break we continued with Helen Lippell‘s talk on Enterprise Search – how to triage problems quickly and prescribe the right medicine – her five main points being analyze user needs, fix broken content, focus on quick wins in the search UI, make sure you are able to tweak the search engine itself in a documentable fashion and remember the importance of people and process. Her last point ‘if search is a political football, get an outsider perspective’ is of course something we would agree with! Next was Peter Wallqvist of Ravn Systems on Universal Search and Social Networking where he focussed on how to allow users to interact directly with enterprise content items by tagging, sharing and commenting – so as to derive a ‘knowledge graph’ showing how people are connected by their relationships to content. We’ve built systems in the past that have allowed users to tag items in the search result screen itself so we can agree on the value of this approach. Our last presenter with Kristian Norling of Findwise on Reflections on the 2013 Enterprise Search Survey – some more positive news this year, with budgets for search increasing and 79% of respondents indicating that finding information is of high importance for their organisation. Although most respondents still have less than one full time staff member working on search, Kristian made the very good point that recruiting just one extra person would thus give them a competitive advantage. Perhaps as he says we’ve now reached a tipping point for the adoption of properly funded enterprise search regarded as an ongoing journey rather than a ‘fire and forget’ project.

The day finished with a ‘fishbowl’ session, during which there was a lot of discussion of how to foster links between the academic IR community and industry, then the BCS IRSG AGM and finally a drinks reception – thanks to all the organisers for a very interesting and enlightening day and we look forward to next year!

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