Search: It's More Than Finding; It's Doing

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As search technology has evolved and digital information has expanded and taken on new forms, "search" is less about finding and more about doing: integrating search and discovery into workflow to improve and speed decision making. With the global economy still struggling to regain its footing, there's little room for error in making enterprise-critical decisions and plenty of incentive to make the right calls as fast as possible. On the consumer side, potential buyers count on search platforms to help them move from vague starting concepts to pinpoint the best combination of features, price, and availability, for everything from shoes to restaurants to healthcare.

According to figures from comScore, more than 131 billion searches were conducted by people age 15 or older from home and work locations worldwide in December 2009, representing a 46% increase over the year prior. But there's room for efficiency gains in those searches. In May 2009, Recommind conducted a study of enterprises averaging 10,000-plus employees and found that even with the global recession forcing companies to increase productivity with fewer workers, employees still spend an average of 38 minutes searching for a single document and often cannot use technology to locate internal expertise. It follows that the market opportunity for more powerful search capabilities continues to grow; according to Gartner Research's 2009 "Magic Quadrant for Information Access Technology," the market for new licenses and maintenance in the enterprise search market totaled $1.1 billion in 2008 and is projected to reach $1.9 billion by 2013.

Seth Grimes, analytics strategist at Alta Plana Corp., says, "Search used to be about finding documents, but now it's about information access. Search engines need to find the context and compile search results in a way that searchers can act upon it." Grimes points to one of the higher profile developments in the consumer search space in the past year, the launch of Microsoft's Bing.com "decision engine," as an example. There, a user can search the terms "Map Boston," which brings backs links to maps as well as to categories such as Boston Attractions and Boston Neighborhoods. "Basic semantic analysis is creeping into mainstream search," says Grimes.

Rising expectations on the demand side have kept search vendors on their toes; their solutions have moved far beyond keyword search to encompass autocategorization, visualization, analytics, and taxonomy support, and search is being implemented directly into workflow. On the consumer and enterprise sides, and across industries, search-based content applications are helping companies and consumers discover what's there and then use information as quickly and effectively as possible.

Flying through the Data
On the consumer side, some of the earliest adopters of supercharged search were on the retail side, and they continue to push the boundaries of search as a platform. Since moving from one online store to another is as easy as a click of a mouse for a frustrated online shopper, retailers have plenty of incentive to get search right. As Whit Andrews, VP and distinguished analyst with Gartner Research, observes, "Amazon.com is an application disguised as a web store."

Jeff Catlin is CEO of Lexalytics, an OEM vendor that provides sentiment and text analysis software to companies such as Scout Labs and BurrellesLuce to power their searches. He says, "Google's wonderful, if you know what you're looking for. But usually a consumer starts with something more vague, like ‘I'm looking for a car.'" Catlin believes a retailer's search application should help the user "fly around" in the responses and then spot and drill down into what's interesting based on individualized parameters.

Media companies are also using that sort of guided navigation to make the most of their content assets. Dow Jones & Co. launched its Wall Street Journal Professional Edition at the tail end of 2009. Brigitte Ricou-Bellan, VP and managing director for Dow Jones, says, "We knew that search would be the winning differentiator for this product, and it was front and center when we started designing it." The application provides subscribers with customized news feeds and alerts delivered directly to their desktop and mobile devices from Dow Jones Newswires, The Wall Street Journal, and the 17,000 global business and news sources of Dow Jones Factiva (a consumer version of the application will be launched by mid-2010). Keyword searches in the application bring back not just news results but clusters of relevant keywords, executives, and curated news sources into which the user can drill down.

Another growing field in which search-based content applications are gathering traction is the arena of consumer medicine. According to a 2009 study from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, 61% of adults look online for health information. Companies such as NetBase and Healthline Networks are making it easier for them to find information they can use. NetBase applies semantic capabilities to enable users to search for medical information in its HealthBase platform, which is designed for healthcare professionals and consumers. It employs semantic technology to surface insights from website content, health and medical articles, research papers, books, and studies. By understanding full sentences rather than simply finding occurrences of keywords, HealthBase leverages linguistic patterns to infer meaning and extract relationships. For instance, a search for "Peanut Allergy" returns information on content sources, definitions, and treatments; users can then click each treatment to see a snapshot of pros and cons.

Another way to make search more actionable for consumers is through innovative presentation of results. Paul Sonderegger, chief strategist for search applications vendor Endeca, says, "There are big changes coming in the user experience for search: new kinds of visualizations like heat maps, graphs, and visual depictions." Healthline is doing this for consumers through its HealthMap tools, providing unique visual navigation tools such as 3D body maps that display a disease or condition and all of the related concepts to help move consumers from searching to understanding. 

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