In November I had the privilege of co-chairing the 5th Search Solutions conference, held at BCS London in Covent Garden. As in previous years we had an eclectic mix of presentations, panels and keynote talks by influential industry leaders on novel and emerging applications in search and information retrieval. But new for this year was the tutorial programme: a selection of practical training courses reflecting current topics and state-of-the-art methods in search and information retrieval.
In hindsight, I can confide that this was something of a gamble: the idea of a tutorial programme came to our attention very late, and we had no idea whether we’d attract sufficient attendees (particularly given the modest size of the event compared to, say, ECIR or CIKM). However, in the end both tutorials were fully booked; a strong signal that we should consider a similar arrangement next year (perhaps even with a more extensive programme, e.g. four tutorials rather than two).
So, onto the event itself. Various folks have written summaries of the whole event (e.g. Charlie Hull’s), so I’ll just pick out a few highlights here. Probably the main one for me was Ricardo Baeza-Yates presentation “Beyond the Ten Blue Links”, which discussed Yahoo’s ongoing quest to satisfy the implicit and explicit needs of web search users, presented as a set of seven “challenges”. Some of these challenges you might have expected, such as Query Assistance (e.g. suggestions, related searches, and so on) and Universal Search (i.e. dealing with mixed media results). But other challenges were more unprecedented, e.g. “Post Search User Experience” and “Application Integration”. Both of these suggest a wider re-framing of the search problem, in which findability is just one (small) part of the overall search experience. In this context, the focus is no longer on low-level activities such as selecting relevant documents, but on recognising and providing support for the completion of higher-level tasks. This is interesting in its own right, but it also underlines Search Solutions policy of bringing together the web and enterprise search communities: in this instance, we clearly can learn a lot from each other.
There are also some fascinating things going on at the British Library, as reported by Lewis Crawford. They’ve certainly taken on ambitious challenge: to provide access and analytics to the UK Web Archive (a kind of British version of the Wayback Machine). Like Yahoo, this talk also addressed the changing nature of users’ search tasks, suggesting that the real value may not be so much in allowing users to ‘find needles in haystacks’, but in providing tools to manipulate and query the haystack itself. Lewis presented an intriguing collection of visualisation and data analysis tools, allowing users to explore and discover patterns and trends in the data, and even build their own applications using their data and APIs.
I should also call out the talk by Ian Kegel, who presented a summary of BT’s work in helping their broadband TV customers find and watch programmes on demand from their extensive catalogues. In this context, search is no longer a goal-directed activity per se, but exists within a wider ecosystem of robust and relevant content recommendations, delivered as part of an ambient, serendipitous pleasurable experience and distributed across multiple devices. Particularly interesting was Ian’s observation that 35% of Amazon’s product sales come from recommendations, underlining just how important it is to get this right.
Finally, I should also mention the Fishbowl session. This was also something of an experiment, but I’m please to say it worked rather well with comment and debate from across the floor, no doubt facilitated by a rather good Merlot (the photo above doesn’t do it justice!)
So that’s it for this year. If you missed it, you’ll be pleased to learn that the presentations are now available online. Next year’s event will be held around the same time (mid-late November), also at BCS London – details to be announced shortly. If you’d like to get involved, e.g. as a speaker or co-organiser, just drop me a line either here or offline. Likewise, if there’s a tutorial topic you’d particularly like to see (or even present), then let us know!