Enterprise search still a technology conversation

In short, best bets (where an editor can select the top results for certain search queries) is seen by many information professionals as about the cheapest and best way to improve your search engine, but the enterprise search industry doesn’t have much of a clue. Many enterprise search products don’t explicitly support this. More generalized, most companies seem to think of search as a technology problem, whereas most of the consultants and experts understand the importance of adding people to the mix.

In 2003, I started an article at Onlamp like this: “A useful search engine is more than a search algorithm. This article explains how to create a search query analysis tool, a best bets feature, and a basic controlled vocabulary.”

The idea was to write for the techies who are building the tools about what we, information architects, think are the things missing from most search engines. Onlamp is O’Reilly’s publication for open source hackers, and I was on a mission to spread the word about IA (also to other groups, like designers). My point was: there are easy things you can add to your search engine that let humans add value to it, like best bets, or a search log analysis tool. It’s not rocket science – if I could write a techie how-to article, the search vendors should be able to figure this out.

Last week, at the 2005 Enterprise search summit, I did a little unscientific survey with the vendors about best bets. I asked them if they had such a functionality in their product (I had to explain it to most), and what they called it. The results were in line with my overall impression of enterprise search. Most of the products work like this:

  1. Spider content and rank
  2. Auto-generate and auto-populate taxonomies to add value to search

Notice the absence of humans in that process.

The control panels of the products tend to contain a section with sysadmin-like functionality, and some analytics (most allow you to see what search queries people have been using). Most of them assume that the person using it has been trained to use this tool. There is surprisingly little functionality aimed at the person whose job it might be to tune the engine with best bets and such. The people I spoke with who actually do that job, use things like Perl scripts or open source software to analyse search queries. (For example, I was told Googlebox doesn’t handle logging multilingual search queries (it searches fine), so one person used Webalizer instead.)

When I asked the best bets question (“does your product do best bets, defined as …”), even after explaining the functionality, I got surprisingly many blank stares. Best whats? Why would you want to do that?

Some products have best bets, but the closest a lot of them could come was to say you could create rules to improve the result of certain documents. That’s like saying, sure, you can do HTML with Word. In theory perhaps, but it’s not really useful.

Here is an incomplete list of products that do best bets, and what they call it. This is an unscientific and uncomplete survey, which may have mistakes in it. Don’t use it to judge a particular product, use it to get a sense of the field.

  • Autonomy: you can kinda do them through rules.
  • BA-insight: no best bets Yes, through SharePoint.
  • FAST: yes (although I have doubts here).
  • IBM: yes, they’re called Quick Links.
  • ISYS: not really.
  • Mondosoft: yes, they’re called Top Hits.
  • Open Text: it’s coming up in their next release.
  • SER Solutions: no.
  • Verity: yes, calls them Sponsored Links.
  • Vivisimo: yes, kind of.

I didn’t have time to ask the other vendors – feel free to add in the comments.

By the way, to work well with users, best bets should appear in-line with the other search results, not separate from them. If I was to do a more complete survey, I’d add that in as a criteria, together with an easy to use admin interface, CV functionality and an easy to use search analysis tool that includes analysis of suddenly popular queries.

0 thoughts on “Enterprise search still a technology conversation

  1. Just wanted to second your post — best bets are important, and unfortunately not as easy to implement or as common as they should be for how important they are. I’ve been doing a fair amount of search log analysis on some sites lately, and the top 100/200 unique queries make up a fairly significant percentage of the overall search queries. I’m trying to advocate for a best bets sort of approach — take the top 100 queries, and make sure the best results show up in the page (or, even better, make sure the entire first page of results is good — but many people still seem to be of the opinion that “the engine will take care of it” if tuned correctly. Did I miss something — are computers suddenly smarter than humans?

  2. Here is an incomplete list of products that do best bets, and what they call it.
    […]

    * Verity: yes, calls them Sponsored Links.

    Hmmm?

    By the way, to work well with users, best bets should appear in-line with the other search results, not separate from them.

    I’m not familiar with Verity & may be misreading. But the day Google put their Sponsored Links inline will be a good day for A8.

  3. I actually have a document where I compared several enterprise search engines that included some kind of best bets functionality. We ended up with Verity’s Search that was formerly Inktomi Enterprise Search. I believe it was called Recommended Links. Definitely a great topic to bang away at, to really get the vendors learning more is to get the customers to demand the functionality. I believe that’s how HP did it with Inktomi’s Ultraseek.

  4. In the Verity Ultraseek product, they are called Quick Links, and have been in the product for a while, since late 2001. We also added a feature to mine the clickthrough data and suggest new Quick Links to be added.

    If hand-selected matches are shown in-line with algorithmic results, we call that “editorial results” or “result stuffing”. Traditionally, Best Bets are a separate set of hits, clearly called out as editorial.

    I think the term Best Bets was first used by Infoseek, but the sponsored keyword matches at AOL were probably earlier.

    I like your other recommendations, and we’ll add them to our list of neat things to do.

  5. I agree with all this here. What Jeff Lsah is talking about is graphically displayed by Tanya Rabourn’s graph (the line is a bit faint but the course it plots is pretty remarkable) of search queries at: http://www.pixelcharmer.com/fieldnotes/archives/process_designing/2003/000326.html . Also if an organisation has discussion boards you’ll probably see the same questions come up time and again – e.g. for a large government organisation you get things like: where are this year’s payscales on the intranet? What is the hottest/coldest our offices are supposed to be? etc. Having Best Bets as out-of-the-box functionality on intranet search just makes so much sense. Maintenance of correct results is an added cost of course…

  6. Some robots are less foolish than others, but no robot is as wise as a human editor.”

    This is quote I like from Richard Wiggins, a Michigan State University information technologist responsible for the creation of MSU Keywords, a non-spidered implementation of Best Bets for the MSU websites. He writes about it in “Beyond the Spider – The Accidental Thesaurus” (http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/oct02/wiggins.htm). To illustrate the value of such an approach, he says to “visit your favorite university on the Web and search for ‘map.’ Most people doing that search want a campus map. In many cases the spider will offer high on the hit list the library’s map of Mesopotamia before the university’s map of its own campus. Thanks to MSU Keywords, we deliver the campus map as the first item on the hit list.”

  7. Hi Peter,
    I came across your name and your expertise on google. I am a recruitment executive based in London working for Computer People and I a am looking for someone who is a speacialist in Verity K2 Enterprise Edition 5.5. The position is based in Geneva, Switzerland. If you are interested please reply to this message. Thanks

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