Archive for Search Technolog

Searching for Answers in Search

There has been an influx of announcements in the search world lately – Wolfram Alpha, Bing, and Siri among the most high profile – so our upcoming panel at SemTech 2009 really couldn’t come at a better time. Set for next Wednesday, June 17 at 8:30am at the San Jose Fairmont, our Executive Roundtable on Semantic Search will pick some of the biggest brains in the business to share their insights on where search is now, where it should be going and what role semantic technology should play in this complex sector.

With both Microsoft and Google represented, we’re sure to discuss Bing and its new place in the search game. Yahoo and will share their experiences as legacy sites that must constantly innovate to stay viable. And up-and-comers True Knowledge and Hakia can give perspective on what it’s like to battle the behemoths in a space that is always hungry for more. In short, we’ve got every aspect of the search game covered so you won’t want to miss it.

If you’re not already registered for SemTech, do so now. Friends of Guidewire Group get a $300 discount on a full-conference pass. If you’re only interested in semantic search, the conference is offering a special Semantic Search Day pass for $195. This gets you access to our panel, a one-on-one Wolfram Alpha interview by Nova Spivack, and access to the exhibit hall.

Hope to see you all in San Jose next week!

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Top-of-mind thoughts on Microsoft and Powerset

There’s a reason I love emerging technology so much: over the course of one hour, the entire landscape can be turned on its head. The rumor out of VentureBeat this afternoon, that Microsoft will acquire Powerset for $100 million next month, has produced the predictable memes: Microsoft is desperate after the Yahoo debacle; Powerset overhyped itself to bankruptcy and needs a bailout; Powerset only searches Wikipedia and we like Google just fine, thanks. While neither party will confirm the rumors, it now seems likely that something significant will happen in the semantic sector over the next couple of months. Having analyzed Powerset and semantic search extensively, I think we should keep a couple of key points in mind beyond the arguments over valuation and hype machines. Read the rest of this entry »

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Search Takes a New Shape

Back in the old days – or the ’90s as some call them – we utilized the Internet as an information resource. What’s that phone number, where is that address, where can I buy that product – you had concrete questions and were no longer required to speak to a human to get answers. Sure, there were bulletin boards and Usenet forums for discussion but they primarily involved coding arguments and game walkthroughs. The Internet wasn’t truly upended into a community, and all that that entails, until just a couple of years ago. It was then that the inundation of bloggers collided with social networking and lifestreaming to produce a perfect storm of content. (And when I say lifestreaming, I mean the trend of putting as many pieces of our life online as possible – books we’re reading, music we like, etc.) We’ve now backed ourselves into a corner online, raging against the indundation of content even as we scroll through our fifth page of FriendFeed updates. We recommend well-written articles about navigating through the noise, right after sharing 25 items in Google Reader.

The logical next step in this technological journey is to therefore prune, to make our time online more meaningful and relevent, no matter how small the nugget of information. Whether I’m setting out to qualify findings in a drug discovery experiment or wondering when Amy Winehouse was last arrested, I want the most reliable, relevant answer in the shortest amount of time. The problem is no longer whether the information is out there but rather how we can get to it quickly and accurately.

It’s against this background that I’m seeing a gradual evolution of the semantic search market. Read the rest of this entry »

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Search redefined

Anyone with even a remote interest in the semantic space has likely experienced the same roller coaster I have regarding Powerset. When I first spoke with Barney Pell over a year ago, the semantic tech sector was an entirely different landscape. I was intrigued by my conversation with Barney and the short demo I saw of Powerset-enabled search. How nifty that the engine knows what I mean by “who did IBM acquire”! But as months went by, we didn’t hear much from Powerset, save a seemingly incongruous Labs announcement. And we heard much from other players in the space. The focus of the semantics community moved away from search to organization – making users’ Internet activity easier to manage – and answering the question of how to take semantics to the masses. Frankly, I had dismissed Powerset as an early mover in the space that had run out of steam. Boy was I wrong.

Powerset’s introduction today of its new Wikipedia search, which also integrates data from Freebase, could have a significant impact on the tech market overall, in that it changes the rules of the search game. Users who experience the incredibly deep, interactive, and intuitive nature of the Powerset search will be even more frustrated with the standard string of result pages delivered by traditional keyword search. Once you’ve dug into the meat of a Wikipedia article with just a couple of clicks, zeroing in on precise actions and entities and going directly to their citations in the article, paging through flat hyperlinks just ain’t going to cut it.

Powerset’s changing of the rules is evidenced by one key statement made by the company: a page of search results, no matter how targeted, is just the beginning of the effort required by the user. Once you’ve found relevant links, you still have to click through to new pages and scour the text for usable information. Powerset’s new way of searching attempts to do some of that work for you; with the scouring and drilling down already complete, you arrive at what you need much quicker.

The Outline feature of the Powerset search is a real gem and I expect will set a new standard for UI in search technology. Having a constant window beside the text as you browse provides an incredibly simple way to jump back and forth between concepts and facts. It could make the browser’s back button obsolete.

What I don’t love about the new search is that it’s currently only on Wikipedia. There are many searches I typed in that can’t take advantage of all this whiz-bang semantic technology. More nebulous concepts aren’t Wikipedia’s strong suit, so Powerset only returns standard results. Example: “Can Hillary win the democratic nomination” returned relevant results but no Wikipedia entry to plumb. So my big “if” with this announcement is whether Powerset can pursue a successful content partnership strategy. If the right publishers, and enough of them, integrate Powerset search into their sites, the long-anticipated threat to Google could finally take shape. No matter the long-term outcome, though, Powerset has raised the bar for search interaction and usability.

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Pink Search Stinks

The news from today has shocked many. Conceding the broad search space to Google, Ask is narrowing its focus to married women in the flyover states (my wording), who “need help managing their lives.” The new search site will “concentrate on finding answers to basic questions about recipes, hobbies, children’s homework, entertainment and health.” The implication being that women aren’t finding what they’re looking for on Google.

As a married mother living in the Texas suburbs, I’m in the unique position of being both an analyst of search technologies and in Ask’s new target demographic. I see multiple problems from both angles. As a technologist, I believe the path to search success lies in broadening, rather than narrowing, your audience. Searchers, no matter their gender, want to know they’re getting the best result from the broadest range of sources on any subject in the world. Assuming any group of people only want results on and from a limited pool just doesn’t make sense. As a married woman, well, I use a wide variety of engines for various search needs and they’re all filling the bill just fine.

To avoid clouding the issue with bias on either side, though, I interviewed a friend, stay-at-home mom of three boys, Polly. Her response:

What are they filtering out that I won’t/can’t understand? I feel I’m being told that I’m too dumb for Google. I’m not feeling any insufficiency in my search. It sounds to me like an easy way to sell advertising.

She was particularly bothered by the “southern, midwestern” classification, which implies women on the coasts are doing just fine with their searches. Frankly, what Ask is doing is reinforcing every stereotype of a Midwest housewife and I don’t think it will be particularly welcomed in this day and age.

Unless Ask has plans to integrate a heavy social presence into the site, I can’t see this succeeding. One of the biggest mistakes a company can make is to underestimate its users. I think Ask just did that in spades.

**Note: we contacted Ask for commentary and did not hear back. I’d love to hear their reasoning behind this move.

**And another update: Ask is now backpedaling, telling Forbes that the AP report was “erroneous” and has since been changed.  I’m with Blogoscoped here: anyone have a copy of the retraction from AP? It would also seem to me that if Ask truly wanted to correct the messaging, they would have jumped to respond to me yesterday. We’ll continue to keep an eye out…

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Krillion: A Smarter Way to Shop

Krillion tackles a problem many have failed to solve, that of “actionable local search.” We all remember Froogle (or do we?), which tried to provide shoppers with local pricing and availability information. The amount of data needed, not to mention the constant need for updating, proved too onerous in the end for even a giant such as Google. So how is Krillion doing it? Brilliantly.

An online resource for offline shopping, Krillion compiles information in five product categories, about pricing and special sales in users’ local markets. The company started with major appliances and now includes televisions, digital cameras, camcorders, and game consoles. (Dozens of other categories are planned for the coming year as well.) Krillion’s data extraction crawlers pull information on a daily basis from national manufacturers and regional retailers. Users searching for Maytag refrigerators, for example, enter their zip codes and are presented with a list of stores in their area selling the desired model, as well as the current price.

I reviewed the company back in March of 07 and part of the analysis now seems a bit naive:

We’re also encouraged by Krillion’s business approach, which is slow and steady. The company made a smart choice with major appliances as its first product category and has reasoned categories in the works for the future. A business model built solely on ad revenue could succeed, but Krillion isn’t content with just one path. Plans to syndicate content will ensure brand awareness across the Internet and the possibilities are almost endless.

Slow and steady? This company has come sprinting out of the gate. When I caught back up with them recently, the progress report was stunning. Read the rest of this entry »

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Surf Canyon: Sophisticated Simplicity

I first talked with Surf Canyon in 2007 and, in a profile for The Guidewire Report, took a wait-and-see approach to the company’s search technology. Delivering personalized, refined results to searchers via its Web site, Surf Canyon chose to focus on result customization rather than building an index from scratch. At the time, I wondered why another entrant was needed in search and posited that more differentiation was needed to make the service stand out. With today’s launch of its Discovery Engine for Search, Surf Canyon delivers that differentiation.

A browser plug-in for Firefox and Internet Explorer, the Discovery Engine has two things going for it: no new behavior is required from the user and no additional sites need be visited. I’ve been using the plug-in for several weeks now and have quickly grown to love it. It’s one of my favorite types of technology – I downloaded it and forgot about it until it made my life easier. When I search for something on Google, click a link and find it’s not what I need, hitting the back button activates Surf Canyon. It notes the link I clicked on and drills further down into the results to deliver similar results. Alternatively, you can click on the bulls-eyes next to each result to drill down without clicking through a link. I recently searched for the phrase “semantic investments.” Clicking on a link that interested me returned a related result from page 16 of the Google results – one I never would have seen without Surf Canyon.

It’s so simple and works so well that I wonder how much of a buzz it will raise in the search world. There are no tech stars behind it, no semantic appellations, no promises to change the world or defeat Google. Just an easy-to-use service on the front and complex algorithms on the back that make my existing search habits much more productive.

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