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Will SEO manage information access?

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The problem has been around since the early days of mainframe-based search systems like IBM STAIRS, the almost forgotten Inquire system and its forward and backward truncation, and the Los Angeles Police Department's original Textir system. The information access challenges for more than 50 years included access to needed content, indexing, query processing, output presentation (now called "look") and interface (often blurred with ease of use and design as "user experience"). The problems remain today, just with different terminology and software solutions.

We know from the LinkedIn analysis of traditional search that progress in findability continues to move forward slowly. Basic issues like indexing information required to answer a question are sidestepped. Enterprise search professionals immerse themselves in solutions that are likely to give a person in customer support a migraine when dealing with an impatient client on the live-chat session. Is Boolean a solution? Will the time-strapped customer support professional click on "facets" whose value is unknown until the content is displayed and then scanned? Is a visualization in the form of a heat map or relationship diagram going to be instantly understandable? Will an enterprise have the staff and time to anticipate customer questions and prepare answers before they are required in the manner of the original AskJeeves' system? Will a system manager be able to implement a ClearForest-type approach with carefully crafted rules to process data in a database and present the user with an "answer" about an automobile's drivetrain?

Five questions to ask

The following questions represent a starting point for anyone concerned with managing knowledge in an organization today.

  • What software systems are available to perform the basic tasks of content acquisition, content normalization, indexing and processing, and to display results tailored to the needs of a specific user? Consider how content and search functions can be consolidated to make the organization more efficient at a lower cost.
  • What staff resources are required to put in place a system that meets the needs of an employee working on a help desk that allows customers to telephone, live chat, e-mail and send traditional hard-copy messages?
  • How will different systems—new, legacy and homebrewed—be integrated into a knowledge access system that users enthusiastically embrace? Social media and Web search may be more magnetic than a Boolean query or an answer generated by outdated rules and flawed artificial intelligence systems.
  • Where will the integrated system be deployed: on premises, in the cloud or in a mixed environment?
  • What security procedures are necessary to cope with user needs and the "monitoring" requirements implicit in different countries' rules for information access by government officials?

I think those are important questions. I can certainly envision a future where search engine optimization, which may be perceived as having more value than traditional information retrieval, may become the gatekeeper for enterprise search in some organizations. Content manipulation to produce desired results may be one way to deal with user grousing about search box-centric systems.

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