Two weeks ago, I was at the Enterprise Search Summit (ESS) in New York. Along with several hundred participants, I was immersed in discussions of findability, taxonomies, metadata, and contextual navigation. Since then, I've thought a lot about the roles of context and content classification (either pre-assigned or done on the fly) in the user's ability to pinpoint needed information. We're starting to see some interesting applications that are taking search beyond the realm of keyword searching emerge. And, this is happening in both enterprise search solutions and in Web search engines.
A number of the speakers at ESS stated that search needs to be more than a box into which the user types words. It's abundantly clear that users struggle with formulating queries, and studies show that most users (except information professionals, of course) don't take advantage of the advanced search features offered by search engines. So, the technology needs to guide users down the right path.
Web search is beginning to explore ways to provide context or classification options that can aid a user's quest for answers. Just last week, Ask Jeeves introduced Zoom, its next-generation concept navigation tool that offers users suggestions to narrow and refine a search ("zooming in") or expand a search ("zooming out"). It can also identify specific names related to a search. Zoom uses the clustering ability of the company's Teoma search technology, which breaks the Web into naturally occurring topic communities. Once users are guided to the right topical community, precision increases dramatically. Users can also benefit from seeing relationships and exploring related topics.
Other search engines offer clustering of search results—users can choose a folder or subset of information as a way to narrow the laundry list of results. Vivisimo offers this in its enterprise search tools as well as its Clusty.com Web search service. Vivisimo does on-the-fly categorization and says its folders present the information landscape. Moving among folders provides an easy way for users to navigate. The Northern Light search engine has provided a similar folder approach to search results for years.
Some of the new visualization technologies provide a graphical way to work with results. Groxis, Inc., a small company that pioneered visualization software, recently teamed up with Yahoo! to offer a free, Web-based, ad-supported version of its search technology (see the NewsBreak at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleId=16205). Grokker organizes and provides a visual map of search results, making it easy to discover, explore, and organize the information. The maps use size, shape, color, and order to present information in a dynamic contextual setting.
Another contextual navigation approach to finding relevant information can be seen at some of the e-commerce sites that let users pick from menus to narrow a search. As industry expert Stephen Arnold explained at ESS, the basic principle is "Don't type, pick."
A site like Wine.com is a good example of this, as shown at ESS by consultant Tom Reamy. A user shopping for a bottle of wine chooses from menus with attributes that are important, such as type (white, red, bubbly), region (California, Australia, France), price ($25 and below, $25-$50), and even special options like "top-rated" (wines under $20) or "top sellers." Another example is an e-commerce site like Nordstrom.com. The menus of choices make it easy to zero in on the attributes of importance, such as color, size, price, or brand.
These attributes or metadata are also known as "facets." These sites are using what is known as "faceted navigation"—a topic I heard quite a bit about at ESS. Mike Moran, a speaker from IBM, talked about how the company is using the multifaceted search capabilities of Endeca to power ibm.com. Users shopping for a notebook computer are shown facets to narrow their choices. Offering the new search technology has significantly increased the success rate of users finding what they want on the site and, more importantly, increased actual purchases. The company is also using faceted navigation for content drilldown for documents and expects to use it for additional applications.
Reamy also mentioned the Flamenco search project of Marti Hearst of the School of Information Management and Systems at UC Berkeley (http://bailando.sims.berkeley.edu/flamenco-interface.html). Flamenco stands for FLexible information Access using MEtadata in Novel COmbinations. According to information on the site: "The interface uses hierarchical faceted metadata in a manner that allows users to both refine and expand the current query, while maintaining a consistent representation of the collection's structure. This use of metadata is integrated with free-text search, allowing the user to follow links, then add search terms, then follow more links, without interrupting the interaction flow." One prototype project provides access to a large collection of architecture images from the UC Berkeley Architecture Visual Resources Library. Facets include periods, concepts, locations, materials, styles, etc.
The ultimate goal of all these approaches is to help users navigate through massive amounts of information without feeling lost or frustrated. And, with innovations from researchers like Hearst and from companies like Endeca, Siderean, Inxight, Verity, and others, we can look forward to great advances in findability.