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Search gets smarter

This article appears in the issue April 2006 [Volume 15, Issue 4]
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Over the past year, search technology has shown remarkable progress in both its features and in the interest from prospective users. Initiatives by high-visibility firms such as Google have drawn attention to it, and enterprises are aggressively seeking more powerful ways of accessing their content.

"As more and more content is created in digitized form, and documents are stored, archived and managed, the need for search has increased," says Matt Brown, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "Enterprises are recognizing search as being of strategic value."

That intensified awareness may begin with such concerns as compliance and risk management, but then extends more broadly to other business uses. Software vendors have responded by offering new approaches to meeting the demand that have brought increased speed and sophistication to search technology.

National Instruments leverages PCs and commercial technologies to increase productivity and lower costs for test, control and design applications through easy-to-integrate software, such as NI LabVIEW, and modular measurement and control hardware for PXI, PCI, USB and Ethernet. LabVIEW is used in industries such as aerospace for materials testing, in semiconductors to test circuits and for many other applications in life sciences, electronics and the automotive industry. The approach of using software tools with standard computers, which National Instruments calls "virtual instrumentation," offers flexibility, productivity gains and cost savings over specialized test equipment. Search had been a strategic initiative for several years, in part because technical support is a major focus of the business. "Degreed engineers are our front line of technical support," says Jeff Watts, search and syndication manager at National Instruments. "This resource is of great value to our customers, but we need to operate efficiently, so finding the right information quickly is a high priority."

The company was using several tools internally, including a mix of enterprise-class search products and database search utilities. But as the volume of its content grew, the ability to find the right document at the right time became more challenging. The company faced other search needs in addition to technical support, including those for customer relationship management (CRM) and customer-facing Web sites.

After exploring several options, National Instruments settled on Fast Search and Transfer (FAST). "We needed something that could handle a large volume of documents and could scale as we grew," says Watts. "One of our pilot projects alone has 1.4 million documents." The installation, undertaken by National Instruments' IT staff, went smoothly. Ten search-based applications were rolled out in about six months.

One of the capabilities that Watts considers to be particularly useful is National Instruments' faceted or guided navigation built on the FAST platform. In that process, the user starts with a broad range of options and is directed toward more specific content. For example, in search of a manual, the user can choose from a list of product types, year published or manual types (e.g., user guide, installation guide). If the choice is made for "software" as product type, the years and manual types list remains, but a more detailed list of software appears. "We do a lot of work with metadata," says Watts, "so that a user can be guided to other related documents by applying metadata from a previous search."

National Instruments is setting up its data warehouse to be searchable by FAST, because all levels of management want a single search view into everything a customer is doing. In addition, e-mails with answers written by technical support staff are searchable using FAST even though they reside in Lotus Notes. By setting up FAST to search repositories throughout the enterprise, National Instruments has broken down application barriers that might otherwise have created a stovepipe environment.

Information retrieval is not about searching any more, or even about finding, according to Rob Lancaster, VP of channel development at FAST. "Making information useful--being able to determine what a particular organization needs--is the difficult part," he says. Relevance may be based on a document's age for one group, or on its relationship to compliance for another.

"The relevance model needs to be tunable," Lancaster explains. "Users need to be in control of the model." During indexing with FAST, many concepts can be extracted. "Many products will let you extract nouns or keywords," he continues, "but few will let you extrapolate a concept from a series of words."

FAST has a series of specialized search applications that build on the FAST Enterprise Search Platform (ESP) and allow organizations to address specific business issues such as brand protection and anti-money laundering, and support business activities such as e-commerce. Other specialized solutions include market intelligence and mobile applications. In February, the company announced a partnership with Groxis (groxis.com) to provide search visualization for FAST users.

Sophisticated, yet simple

Companies whose business is geared toward providing content are continuously seeking new ways to make that content more accessible to users. Factiva provides business news and information from more than 10,000 sources, including leading financial newspapers and newswires from Dow Jones, Reuters and the Associated Press.

"The information overload problem was becoming very clear to us," says Dennis Cahill, Factiva's VP of product, "and search technology was not achieving what users needed." Factiva began breaking down those needs, creating a new solution in its release of Search 2.0.

As the universe of information has grown more complex, the tools for finding the target content must become more sophisticated. At the same time, the tools cannot be more complex, because so many users now conduct their own searches.  

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