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An Interview with Søren Pallesen

Søren Pallesen of SurfRay

SurfRay, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, is open for business. After some of the all-too-common ups and downs caused by the global financial crisis, the firm has a new managing director and a new release of the company's Ontolica and Mondosoft products. In the shift between the former management team and the new team put in place in the last five months, SurfRay has been working to update both products. The firm's technology base includes search and report generation . In addition, the company has ownership of a high-speed indexing method for traditional database tables. Not surprisingly, the new team is bullish on the firm's future. Ontolica adds features and functions to SharePoint content processing. Mondosoft is a snap in replacement for SharePoint search. With the release of SharePoint 10 approaching, SurfRay sees a significant opportunity for the firm to grow. I spoke with Søren Pallesen on September 26, 2009.

The full text of our conversation about his Universal search system and the future of search and retrieval appears below.

What changes have you made since you took over as CEO at SurfRay six months ago?

SurfRay’s mission is to deliver tightly packaged search software solutions for businesses to provide effective search for both internal and external users. With Packaged we mean easy to try, install and use.

Our vision is to be our customer’s first choice for packaged enterprise search solutions and to become the world’s third largest search solution provider in the world measured on number of paying business customers by 2012.

The last six months have been an exciting time for SurfRay. I took over as CEO; we significantly increased investment in product development and an ambitious expansion of the organization. This has paid off. SurfRay is profitable, and we have released new versions of our core products. Ontolica is now in version 4.0, including a new suite of reporting and analytics, and MondoSearch 5.4 is in beta for a Q4 release.

As a profitable company we are in the fortunate position to be able to fund our own growth and we are expanding in North America among other by hiring more sales people as well as formation of a Search Expert Center in Vancouver, Canada that will serve customers across the Americas. We are also expanding in Europe most recently with formation of SurfRay UK and Ireland, allowing us to expand sales and support with local people on the ground in this important European market.

In addition to our profitability we feel it is a significant signal of solidity and longevity, in these difficult financial-crisis times where many of our competitors are struggling to survive, that our majority stockholder and financial partner is a bank listed on the Copenhagen Stock Exchange.

You have just announced the new product releases Ontolica 4.0 and MondoSearch 5.4, what is new in these versions?

Yes, we are very excited to show the results of our significant investments in product development. After all the future viability of any software company depends on its ability to keep delivering new functionality that solve real-world problems for customers.

We have just released Ontolica 4.0, which is a brand new major release that among other features includes the new Ontolica Search Intelligence module, which provides extensive reporting and analytics on search performance and SharePoint usage. It’s an exciting new release that now delivers advanced search and reporting in the same package. Ontolica is a very popular product from SurfRay as it is incredibly easy to install and setup and can be deployed in literally minutes.

We are also delighted to have completed development on Ontolica Express which is a search extension to Microsoft Search Server and Search Server Express. This actually transforms Microsoft’s free search engine into a much more rich and robust solution by adding important features such as wildcard and Boolean search as well as drill down and faceted search. And by doing so delivers a feature rich cost effective solution to customers.

MondoSearch continues to be an effective site search tool for hundreds of companies worldwide. But that is not enough, and with MondoSearch 5.4 we will expand the products out-of-the-box functionality, and include among other new Search Engine Optimization features. Even more exciting is the fact that we are in the planning stage for MondoSearch 6 which bring extended navigators and will future-proof the product for our global customer base.

On your Web site and in your press releases you position yourself as a Packaged Enterprise Search vendor. What do you mean by that?

Enterprise Search solutions are most often synonymous with long and expensive customization and implementation projects for customers. It is SurfRay’s mission to change that.

Let me illustrate with three real world examples from deals this quarter:

In a deal won against a search vendor from White Plains, NY we were about equal in our feature match to the customer’s requirements for a SharePoint search solution but the deciding factor for the customer was the fact that they were able to install a fully functional trial of Ontolica for MOSS in minutes. The customer did not have to take our word for how the solution would work in real life. They could easily see what they would get before the purchase and show the users the value our solution would deliver. Packaged solutions take away risk for customers.

In another deal for an Intranet search solution against a Canadian competitor we came late into the sales cycle but because we released Ontolica Express the customer contacted us. By adding Ontolica Express on top of Microsoft’s free Search Server Express the customer was able to get 80% of the features of the competitive solution, however it was the 80% they needed. And our price was €5,000 instead of the €35,000 our competitor asked for. Packaged solutions typically costs less.

Finally let me mention a deal that interestingly enough was brought to us by Microsoft. The customer needed a SharePoint search solution and had rejected to implement Microsoft’s own FAST solution due to cost and complexity. The requirements called for a customization to include a specific custom action of search results and was done in one week on Ontolica and implemented in a way that preserves the customers upgrade path going forward. Our price was $100,000 compared with price tag above $1 million for the FAST solution. Packaged solutions are typically easier and safer to customize.

We believe that these compelling benefits of packaged enterprise search solutions are changing the market dynamics radically.

The number of new companies entering the search and content processing "space" is increasing. What's your view on too many hungry mouths and too edible herring?

We see this as a good sign that the market is really maturing, and bringing with it customer-awareness of the fact that good search is more than just a text-box with a button next to it. We are also positive about the development of more varied offerings and less dependency on the few big players. We are also always on the lookout for great new technology to add to our offerings.

Our ability to deliver tightly packaged enterprise search solutions that are rich in functionality but is easy to try and install plays very well in this mature market. For example Ontolica installs literally in 5 minutes. In that way we see SurfRay as leading the market maturation and fueling our growth from customers demand for more packaged search products and less expensive consulting projects.

What are the differentiating features that you want to deliver to your customers?

Great search that sets up easily is simple to use, at a cost that ensures predictable and fast ROI.

We deliver a very long feature list for both Ontolica and MondoSearch that includes all you would expect and what most customers need in terms of enterprise search functionality. What we keep hearing from our customers is that they find it compelling that they can risk free try all this functionality with an unlimited trial version that installs easily, and after purchase they can convert the trial to a production implementation with a few clicks.

An example of a new feature in Ontolica 4.0 that really stands out is a brand new module called Search Intelligence. This combines the massive amounts of search related information found in the IIS, SharePoint and Ontolica log files into an analytical cube that can deliver new insight into the search effectiveness and resource usage in customers SharePoint implementation. The functionality includes 27 pre-packaged reports and ability for customers to build their own custom reports. The pre-packaged reports these elements. [Mr. Paulson handed me the table reproduced below.]

This seems quite comprehensive. Are the data easily accessible?

Yes, we have a point-and-click interface. Very easy to use and intuitive.

Can you characterize typical installations and offer examples of who your customers are?

Customers that buy our products typically fall into a number of usage scenarios. Simply put Ontolica solves search problems inside the firewall and MondoSearch outside the firewall.

Firstly customers with SharePoint implementations look for enhanced search functionality, and turn to our Ontolica for SharePoint product.

Secondly, businesses that do not use SharePoint but have the need for an internal search solution on an intranet, file servers, across email, applications and other sources buy Ontolica Express and use it in combination with Microsoft Search Server Express for simple single server installation or Micro Search Server for multiple load balanced server installations.

Thirdly, customers with the need for robust and highly configurable web site search buy MondoSearch. Especially popular with businesses that want to implement up- and cross selling on their search results page.

Our customer base is by far our proudest and most important asset. We have over 1000 customer worldwide that include some of the most known brands and largest companies in the world including AT&T Wireless, Bank of Thailand, Best Buy, BMW, Ernst & Young, Ferrari, H & R Block, Hydro, Intel Solution Services, John Deere, Nintendo, Novartis, , MetLife, O2, Rockwool, Schering-Plough, Siemens, TOTAL France, Sydney Airport Corporation and UPS.

There's a push to create mash ups--that is, search results that deliver answers or reports. What's your view of this trend?

This kind of customized search result can be a great value addition for end-users. If it is simple enough and makes sense. A lot of search vendors seem to be adding features that are hard to understand simply out of a desperate desire to add features, but often forget to add real value for customers. In many respects we don’t see mash-ups as something revolutionary and new – it is merely presenting search results in the most meaningful way possible to the user.

We focus on the features that deliver value to customers, are easy to use out of the box and extensible through industry standard technologies. This is also the key reason behind our extensibility and customer-configurable approach. For example by putting simple well-established tools such as XSL transformation of results into the hands of the people who know what they want, we allow customers to build their own value on top of what they get out of the box.

Semantic systems have been getting quite a bit of coverage. What's your view on semantics and natural language processing? Are these technologies ready for prime time?

Semantic search and natural Language search had very slow uptake for a number of reasons. First of all, vendors are not clear or consistent on what these things mean and there are varied approaches to how the results are delivered and prioritized. Secondly, people’s content is not usually well represented well in semantic networks. Thirdly, people are not used to the way semantic search is performed.

People are, in fact, used to Google and have learned how to search the ‘Google’ way. For us, the secret to good search is that a user searches for a term they think represents the result they want and the result is returned at the top of the result set. Most vendors’ features are actually just band-aids to compensate for their products’ inability to do this. Semantic search is another attempt to get closer to achieving this but we don’t think it is there yet. The ranking algorithms in our products use both natural language processing capabilities and more conventional methods – our experience is that customers still by far prefer the latter as it delivers results that are closer to what users expect.

A number of vendors have shown me very fancy interfaces. Are we entering an era of eye candy instead of results that are relevant to the user?

Our view is that interface is important however it is always the search results and what people can do with them that count. Eye candy isn’t necessarily helping the end users find the information.

We endeavor to deliver simple yet effective search results that help people get to the information they need. This also explains our focus on statistics and reporting, as well as effective search navigation interfaces such as category grouping and faceted search. Search engines can’t read minds, so they need to give users useful tools to navigate the results.

Essentially we want to find out what the users need before adding all sorts of bells and whistles, and most of these UI enhancements are in danger of essentially distracting from the information finding experience.

What is it that you think people are looking for from today's search technology? What are people really looking for?

Generally, the search solution market for businesses has matured to the degree where customers are not that interested in new advanced technology. We find that they are mostly concerned with firstly cost of deployment meaning “is it hard and expensive to implement?” and secondly the usability of the solution meaning “is it easy to use and have a compelling user interface?”

Our customers need to deliver that experience to their users in the easiest and most cost effective way. Most of our customers have some kind of existing search experience when they approach us, SharePoint Search, database search, or a built in CMS search. They know the search is not working and want to get something that does. They can very quickly see that the experience we deliver gives the results they want and allows them to analyze and adjust it.

Today most customers are very well educated on search technology and they don’t want to be convinced that they need some fancy new thing.

The next new thing that truly will transform the search market and deliver substantial value to customers will be enterprise class search solutions that install and are configured as easily as Microsoft Office.

What are we going to see from SurfRay the next 12 to 24 months?

We are focused on three things:

First, we want to continue to lead the trend towards packaged enterprise search solution that takes the complexity out of deploying business search solutions. We will do this by releasing new products and versions continuously that support our leadership in this area.

Second,  Geographic expansion. We are focused on establishing dedicated physical presence in local markets to further build our local customer support and international reseller network. We have just established SurfRay UK and Ireland and are soon announcing more country operations.

Finally, innovation. We have a deep heritage in innovation and advanced search technology. We will continue to leverage this and to put valuable innovation into our packaged search solutions that makes search functional as well as easy to install and use. Specifically are we working on some very interesting high-performance solutions for very large scale deployments. And staying true to our mission delivering them as packaged solutions.

Where can people get more information?

We just created a brand new Web site to make it easier for people to get information and trial licenses:

ArnoldIT Comment

SurfRay has an ambitious plan. The company's new releases of Mondosoft and Ontolica coincide with the new release of SharePoint. The clunkiness of some SharePoint features translates to opportunity for SurfRay. SharePoint's 100 million licenses presents a large market faced with brutal costs for getting the system to deliver useful metatagging and search results. SurfRay's products could strike gold. But, there are other companies targeting the large SharePoint installed base. SurfRay, like other vendors looking to generate revenue by delivering software that improves SharePoint, will have to deal with the Microsoft marketing machine and the marketing challenge of capturing attention in the noisy, large, disorganized SharePoint marketplace.

Stephen E. Arnold, September 29, 2009

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