Search is increasingly becoming the main way in which people interact with information online, no matter what form it takes or where it is stored – be it on an intranet or on the Web. According to information technology analysts Gartner, by the end of 2012 more than 75 per cent of applications will use a “search/explore” field as a primary user interface.
Next-generation search technologies build on traditional search models (based on ranking pages according to their content and links to other pages on the Web) to try and produce a more relevant and “rich” user experience. Founded in Norway in 1997 out of work at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, FAST– now a Microsoft subsidiary and part of the Enterprise Search Group – is a key player in the development of next-generation searching.
Through its Centre for Researchdriven Innovation iAD (Information Access Disruptions), part funded by the Research Council of Norway, FAST is taking a unique approach to developing these technologies. A collaboration with commercial and academic partners, iAD aims to tackle the challenges presented by a growing demand for search amid an increasing amount of digital data. FAST's first product was a Web search engine, but it now specialises in enterprise search – the indexing and searching of the data held by an organisation. The data can take many forms (including text, images and video) and can be located on intranets, in emails, databases and file systems. Nextgeneration technologies will look to improve experiences for users of Internet search and enterprise search alike.
There are three main aspects to an effective search, says Odd Petter Nord Slyngstad, Research Program Manager at FAST. First is what he calls “interaction management” – understanding what the user wants to get from a search to create a more interactive, personalised experience. This is similar to how Amazon uses information from a customer's previous behaviour, and that of other customers, to create a personalised list of recommendations.
An effective search is also concerned with how the user navigates a site. “Searching should be more like a dialogue,” says Slyngstad, “a conversation related to context.”
The need to create unique user experiences for customers is not new, but it is all the more pressing as the choice online increases. “Businesses must try harder to attract and retain visitors to their site,” Slyngstad says. The vast amount of information available has, he adds, created a demand for a more tailored, individualised search experience.
The second ingredient of an effective search is “contextual matching”, ensuring that the search results are relevant. Third is content analytics. Essentially, this involves using particular tools to mine search results to capture information and enhance the results you get back. “It's all about allowing people to find instantly what or who they need, instead of having to interpret search results,” says Slyngstad.
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There are other ways that nextgeneration search can help online businesses gain value, for example by inspiring new business models, creating new revenue streams and increasing productivity. UK property search engine globrix.com is one example of a search-driven online business that does not generate revenue from advertisements but by directing traffic to other sites.
Next-generation search engines will not be restricted to the Internet, Slyngstad says. Search engines could be embedded in new technologies, and incorporated into those already in use – for example a satellite set-top box that could give personalised recommendations according to what you and others are watching. “Search could look at your behaviour every time you pick up your remote,” he says.
iAD's unique set-up includes media company Schibsted and consulting company Accenture alongside academic partners: the major Norwegian universities in Oslo, Trondheim and Tromsø, Dublin City University, Ireland, and Cornell University, USA. “FAST always tries to retain and expand connections to universities,” Slyngstad says. “To lead the way in next-generation search we need to be connected to the brightest minds, which I think are often found in universities.”
What does an approach such as this have to offer? “Ten years ago there were strict borders between academia and industry, but there is now a trend for these groups to work closely together,” says Dag Johansen, a professor in the Department of Computer Science, University of Tromsø, Norway, and part-time Chief Scientist at FAST. “The two different kinds of results – published papers versus new products – both benefit society.”
Johansen has close links to the USA, particularly Cornell University. It was on a trip to the States that he and Bjørn Olstad, FAST's CTO, were inspired to launch iAD. “The movers and shakers of computer science, in terms of novelty and impact on society, go through the US academic system,” he says. “iAD is basically an Americanstyle project running in Europe.” This model, Johansen says, produces joint projects that are defined in industry but suitable for exploration in academia.
BI Norwegian School of Management is another of iAD's academic partners. Espen Andersen, an associate professor at BI, has been involved in iAD since its launch in 2006. “At BI, we're interested in the strategic side of new technologies, such as the business impact of search and the patterns of use.”
“I've worked in the interface between business and academia all my life,” he says. “Many development projects are meant to be hosted by business – iAD is different because it actually is.”
Andersen says this interaction can help prevent technology developers getting carried away creating more and more advanced technologies – as he puts it “overshooting what customers can absorb”.
It can also benefit academics working in business schools. “A lot of business-oriented research in business schools is very dated, partly because few researchers have close-enough contact with the business world,” he says. And he is emphatic about the benefits of a collaboration such as iAD: “You stay grounded, you have inside access to industry, and you're working on something exciting.”