Harry Collier, Infonortics, Exclusive Interview
March 2, 2009
Editor’s Note: I spoke with Harry Collier on February 27, 2009, about the Boston Search Engine Meeting. The conference, more than a decade into in-depth explorations of search and content processing, is one of the most substantive search and content processing programs. The speakers have come from a range of information retrieval disciplines. The conference organizing committee has attracted speakers from the commercial and research sectors. Sales pitches and recycled product reviews are discouraged. Substantive presentations remain the backbone of the program. Conferences about search, search engine optimization, and Intranet search have proliferated in the last decade. Some of these shows focus on the “soft” topics in search and wrap the talks with golf outings and buzzwords. The attendee learns about “platinum sponsors” and can choose from sales pitches disguised as substantive presentations. The Infonortics search conference has remained sharply focused and content centric. One attendee told me last year, “I have to think about what I have learned. A number of speakers were quite happy to include equations in their talks.” Yep, equations. Facts. Thought provoking presentations. I still recall the tough questions posed to Larry Page (Google) after his talk in at the 1999 conference. He argued that truncation was not necessary and several in attendance did not agree with him. Google has since implemented truncation. Financial pressures have forced some organizers to cancel some of their 2009 information centric shows; for example, Gartner, Magazine Publishers Association., and Newspaper Publishers Association. to name three. Infonortics continues to thrive with its reputation for delivering content plus an opportunity to meet some of the most influential individuals in the information retrieval business. You can learn more about Infonortics here. The full text of the interview with Mr. Collier, who resides in the Cotswolds with an office in Tetbury, Glou., appears below:
Why did you start the Search Engine Meeting? How does it different from other search and SEO conferences?
The Search Engine Meeting grew out of a successful ASIDIC meeting held in Albuquerque in March 1994. The program was organized by Everett Brenner and, to everyone’s surprise, that meeting attracted record numbers of attendees. Ev was enthusiastic about continuing the meeting idea, and when Ev was enthusiastic he soon had you on board. So Infonortics agreed to take up the Search Engine Meeting concept and we did two meetings in Bath in England in 1997 and 1998, then moved thereafter to Boston (with an excursion to San Francisco in 2002 and to The Netherlands in 2004). Ev set the tone of the meetings: we wanted serious talks on serious search domain challenges. The first meeting in Bath already featured top speakers from organizations such as WebCrawler, Lycos, InfoSeek, IBM, PLS, Autonomy, Semio, Excalibur, NIST/TREC and Claritech. And ever since we have tried to avoid areas such as SEO and product puffs and to keep to the path of meaty, research talks for either search engine developers, or those in an enterprise environment charged with implementing search technology. The meetings tread a line between academic research meetings (lots of equations) and popular search engine optimization meetings (lots of commercial exhibits).
Pictured from the left: Anne Girard, Harry Collier, and Joan Brenner, wife of Ev Brenner. Each year the best presentation at the conference is recognized with the Evvie, an award named in honor of her husband, and chair of the first conference in 1997.
There’s a great deal of confusion about the meaning of the word “search”, what’s the scope of the definition for this year’s program?
Yes, “Search” is a meaty term. When you step back, searching, looking for things, seeking, hoping to find, hunting, etc are basic activities for human beings — be it seeking peace, searching for true love, trying to find an appropriate carburetor for an old vehicle, or whatever. We tend now to have a fairly catholic definition of what we include in a Search Engine Meeting. Search — and the problems of search — remains central, but we are also interested in areas such as data or text mining (extracting sense from masses of data) as well as visualization and analysis (making search results understandable and useful). We feel the center of attention is moving away from “can I retrieve all the data?” to that of “how can I find help in making sense out of all the data I am retrieving?”
Over the years, your conference has featured big companies like Autonomy, start ups like Google in 1999, and experts from very specialized fields such as Dr. David Evans and Dr. Liz Liddy. What pulls speakers to this conference?
We tend to get some of the good speakers, and most past and current luminaries have mounted the speakers’ podium of the Search Engine Meeting at one time or another. These people see us as a serious meeting where they will meet high quality professional search people. It’s a meeting without too much razzmatazz; we only have a small, informal exhibition, no real sponsorship, and we try to downplay the commercialized side of the search world. So we attract a certain class of person, and these people like finding each other at a smaller, more boutique-type meeting. We select good-quality venues (which is one reason we have stayed with the Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston for many years), we finance and offer good lunches and a mixer cocktail, and we select meeting rooms that are ideal for an event of 150 or so people. It all helps networking and making contacts.
What people should attend this conference? Is it for scientists, entrepreneurs, marketing people?
Our attendees usually break down into around 50% people working in the search engine field, and 50 percent those charged with implementing enterprise search. Because of Infonortics international background, we have a pretty high international attendance compared with most meetings in the United States: many Europeans, Koreans and Asians. I’ve already used the word “serious”, but this is how I would characterize our typical attendee. They take lots of notes; they listen; they ask interesting questions. We don’t get many academics; Ev Brenner was always scandalized that not one person from MIT had ever attended the meeting in Boston. (That has not changed up until now).
You have the reputation for delivering a content rich program. Who assisted you with the program this year? What are the credentials of these advisor colleagues?
I like to work with people I know, with people who have a good track record. So ever since the first Infonortics Search Engine Meeting in 1997 we have relied upon the advice of people such as you, David Evans (who spoke at the very first Bath meeting), Liz Liddy (Syracuse University) and Susan Feldman (IDC). And over the past nine years or so my close associate, Anne Girard, has provided non-stop research and intelligence as to what is topical, who is up-and-coming, who can talk on what.These five people are steeped in the past, present and future of the whole world of search and information retrieval and bring a welcome sense of perspective to what we do. And, until his much lamented death in January 2006, Ev Brenner was a pillar of strength, tough-minded and with a 45 year track record in the information retrieval area.
Where can readers get more information about the conference?
The Infonortics Web site (www.infonortics.eu) provides one-click access to the Search Engine Meeting section, with details of the current program, access to pdf versions of presentations from previous years, conference booking form and details, the hotel booking form, etc.
Stephen Arnold, March 2, 2009