Month: December 2007

Enterprise Search and Its Semantic Evolution

That the Gilbane Group launched its Enterprise Search Practice this year was timely. In 2007 enterprise search become a distinct market force, capped off with Microsoft announcing in November that it has definitively joined the market.

Since Jan. 1, 2007, I have tried to bring attention to those issues that inform buyers and users about search technology. My intent has been to make it easier for those selecting a search tool while helping them to get a highly satisfactory result with minimal surprises. Playing coach and lead champion while clarifying options within enterprise search is a role I embrace. It is fitting then, that I wrap up this year with more insights gained from Gilbane Boston; these were not previously highlighted and relate to semantic search.

The semantic Web is a concept introduced almost ten years ago reflecting a vision of how the Worldwide Web (WWW) would evolve. In the beginning we needed a specific address (URL) to get to individual Web sites. Some of these had their own search engines while others were just pages of content we scrolled through or jumped through from link to link. Internet search engines like Alta Vista and Northern Light searched limited parts of the WWW. Then, Yahoo and Google came to provide much broader coverage of all “free” content. While popular search engines provided various categorizing, taxonomy navigation, keyword and advanced searching options, you had to know the terminology that content pages contained to find what you meant to retrieve. If your terms were not explicitly in the content, pages with synonymous or related meaning were not found. The semantic Web vision was to “understand” your inquiry intent and return meaningful results through its semantic algorithms.

The most recent Gilbane Boston conference featured presentations of commercial applications of various semantic search technologies that are contributing to enterprise search solutions. A few high level points gleaned from speakers on analytic and semantic technologies follow.

  • Jordan Frank on blogs and wikis in enterprises articulated how they add context by tying content to people and other information like time. Human commentary is a significant content “contextualizer,” my term, not his.
  • Steve Cohen and Matt Kodama co-presented an application using technology (interpretive algorithms integrated with search) to elicit meaning from erratic and linguistically difficult (e.g. Arabic, Chinese) text in the global soup of content.
  • Gary Carlson gave us understanding of how subject matter expertise contributes substantively to building terminology frameworks (aka “taxonomies”) that are particularly meaningful within a unique knowledge community.
  • Mike Moran helped us see how semantically improved search results can really improve the bottom line in the business sense in both his presentation and later in his blog, a follow-up to a question I posed during the session.
  • Colin Britton described the value of semantic search to harvest and correlate data from highly disparate data sources needed to do criminal background checks.
  • Kate Noerr explained the use of federating technologies to integrate search results in numerous scenarios, all significant and distinct ways to create semantic order (i.e. meaning) out of search results chaos.
  • Bruce Molloy energized the late sessions with his description of how non-techies can create intelligent agents to find and feed colleagues relevant information by searching in the background in ways that go far beyond the typical keyword search.
  • Finally, Sean Martin and John Stone co-presented an approach to computational data gathering and integrating the results in an analyzed and insightful format that reveals knowledge about the data, not previously understood.

Points taken are that each example represents a building block of the semantic retrieval framework we will encounter on the Web and within the enterprise. The semantic Web will not magically appear as a finished interface or product but it will become richer in how and what it helps us find. Similar evolutions will happen in the enterprise with a different focus, providing smarter paths for operating within business units.

There is much more to pass along in 2008 and I plan to continue with new topics relating to contextual analysis, the value, use and building of taxonomies, and the variety of applications of enterprise search tools. As for 2007, it’s a wrap.

Enterprise Search: Leveraging and Learning from Web Search and Content Tools

Following on my last post in which I covered the unique value propositions offered by a variety of enterprise search products, this one takes a look at the evolution of enterprise search. The commentary by search company experts, executives, and analysts indicates some evolutionary technologies and the escalation of certain themes in enterprise search. Furthermore, the pursuit of organizations to strengthen the link between searching technologies and knowledge enablers has never been more prominently featured taking search to a whole new level beyond mere retrieval.
The following paraphrased comments from the Enterprise Search Keynote session are timely and revealing. When I asked, Will Web and Internet Search Technologies Drive the Enterprise (Internal) Search Tool Offerings or Will the Markets Diverge?, these were some thoughts from the panelists.

Matt Brown, Principal Analyst from Forrester Research, commented that enterprise search demands much different and richer content interpretation types of search technologies. What Web-based searching does is create such high visibility for search that enterprises are being primed to adopt it, but only when it comes with enhanced capabilities.

Echoing Matt’s remarks, Oracle search solution manager Bob Bocchino commented on the difficulty of making search operate well within the enterprise because it needs to deal with structured database content and unstructured files, while also applying sophisticated security features that let only authorized viewers see restricted content. Furthermore, security must be deployed in a way that does not degrade performance while supporting continuous updates to content and permissions.

Hadley Reynolds, VP & Director of the Center for Search Innovation at Fast Search & Transfer, noted that the Web isn’t really making a direct impact on enterprise search innovation but many of the social tools found on the Web are being adopted in enterprises to create new kinds of content (e.g. social networks, blogs and wikis) with which enterprise search engines must cope in richer contextual ways.

Don Dodge, Director of Business Development for the Emerging Business Team at Microsoft further noted that the Internet’s biggest problem is scale. That is a much easier problem to solve than in the enterprise where user standards for what qualifies as a good and valuable search results are much higher, therefore making the technology to deliver those results more difficult.

Among the other noteworthy comments in this session was a negative about taxonomies. The gist of it was that they require so much discipline that they might work for a while but can’t really be sustained. If this attitude becomes the norm, many of the semantic search engines which depend on some type of classification and categorization according to industry terminologies or locally maintained lists will be challenged to deliver enhanced search results. This is a subject to be taken up in a later blog entry.

A final conclusion about enterprise search was a remark about the evolution of adoption in the marketplace. Simply put, the marketplace is not monolithic in its requirements. The diversity of demands on search technologies has been a disincentive for vendors to focus on distinct niches and place more effort on areas like e-commerce. This seems to be shifting, especially with all the large software companies now seriously announcing products in the enterprise search market.

Case Studies: Enterprise Search Success Stories

It has been a week since the annual Gilbane Boston 2007 Conference closed and I am still searching for the most important message that came out of Enterprise Search and Semantic Web Technology sessions. There were so many interesting case studies that I’ll begin with a search function that illustrates one major enterprise search requirement – aggregation.
Besides illustrating a business case for aggregating disparate content using search, the case studies shared three themes:
> Search is just a starting point for many business processes
> While few very large organizations present all of their organization’s content through a single portal, the technology options to manage such an ideal design are growing and up to supporting entire enterprises
> All systems were implemented and operational for delivering value in less than one year, underscoring the trend toward practical and more out-of-the box solutions
Here is a brief take on what came out of just the first two of seven sessions.
Small-medium solutions:
> Use of ISYS to manipulate search results and function as a back-office data analysis tool for DirectEDGAR, the complete SEC filings, presented by Prof. Burch Kealey of the University of Nebraska. Presentation
> Support for search by serendipity across the shareable content domains of members of a trade association (ARF) by finding results that satisfy the searcher in his pursuit of understanding with Exalead, presented by Alain Heurtebise CEO of Exalead. Presentation
> A knowledge portal enabling rapid and efficient retrieval of the complete technical documentation for field service engineers at Otis Elevator to meet rapid response goals when supporting customers using a customized implementation of dtSearch, presented by project consultant Rob Wiesenberg of Contegra Systems, Inc. Presentation
Large solutions calling for search across multi-million record domains:
> Hosted Vivisimo solution federating over 40 million documents across 22,000 government web sites accessible with search results clustered; it records over a half million page views per day on http://USA.gov and was deployed in 8 weeks, presented by Vivisimo co-founder Jerome Pesenti. Presenation
> Intranet knowledge portal for improving customer services by enabling access to internal knowledge assets (over half a million customer cases with all their associated documents) at USi (an AT&T company) using Endeca, a search product USi had experience deploying and hosting for very large e-commerce catalogs, presented by development leader Toby Ford of USi. With one developer it was running in six months. Presentation
> Within a large law firm (Morrison Foerster) and the legal departments of two multi-national pharmaceutical companies (Pfizer and Novartis), Recommind aggregates and indexes content for numerous internal application repositories, file shares and external content sources for unified search across millions of documents, contributing a direct ROI in saved labor by ensuring that required documents are retrieved in a single search process. Presentation
In each of these cases, content from numerous sources was aggregated through the crawling and indexing algorithms of a particular search engine pointed at a bounded and defined corpus of content, with or without associated metadata to solve a particular business problem. In each case, there were surrounding technologies, human architected design elements, and interfaces to present the search interface and results for a predefined audience. This is what we can expect from search in the coming months and years, deployments to meet specialized enterprise needs, an evolving array of features and tools to leverage search results, and a rapid scaling of capabilities to match the explosion of enterprise content that we all need to find and manipulate to do our jobs.
Next week, I will reconstruct more themes and messages from the conference.

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