Search: A Persistent Disconnect between Reality and Innovation

August 17, 2012

Two years ago I wrote The New Landscape of Search. Originally published by Pandia in Norway, the book is now available without charge when you sign up for  our new “no holds barred” search newsletter Honk!. In the discussion of Microsoft’s acquisition of Fast Search & Transfer SA in 2008, I cite documents which describe the version of Fast Search which the company hoped to release in 2009 or 2010. After the deal closed, the new version of Fast seemed to drop from view. What became available was “old” Fast.

I read the InfoWorld story “Bring Better Search to SharePoint.” Set aside the PR-iness of the write up. The main point is that SharePoint has a lousy search system. Think of the $1.2 billion Microsoft paid for what seems to be, according to the write up, a mongrel dog. My analysis of Fast Search focused on its age. The code dates from the late 1990s and its use of proprietary, third party, and open source components. Complexity and the 32 bit architecture were in need of attention beyond refactoring.

The InfoWorld passage which caught my attention was:

Longitude Search’s AptivRank technology monitors users as they search, then promotes or demotes content’s relevance rankings based on the actions the user takes with that content. In a nutshell, it takes Microsoft’s search-ranking algorithm and makes it more intelligent…

The solution to SharePoint’s woes amounts to tweaking. In my experience, there are many vendors offering similar functionality and almost identical claims regarding fixing up SharePoint. You can chase down more at

The efforts are focused on a product with a large market footprint. In today’s dicey economic casino, it makes sense to trumpet solutions to long standing information retrieval challenges in a product like SharePoint. Heck, if I had to pick a market to pump up my revenue, SharePoint is a better bet than some others.

Contrast the InfoWorld’s “overcome SharePoint weaknesses” with the search assertions in “Search Technology That Can Gauge Opinion and Predict the Future.” We are jumping from the reality of a Microsoft product which has an allegedly flawed search system into the exciting world of what everyone really, really wants—serious magic. Fixing SharePoint is pretty much hobby store magic. Predicting the future: That is big time, hide the Statue of Liberty magic.

Here’s the passage which caught my attention:

A team of EU-funded researchers have developed a new kind of internet search that takes into account factors such as opinion, bias, context, time and location. The new technology, which could soon be in use commercially, can display trends in public opinion about a topic, company or person over time — and it can even be used to predict the future…Future Predictor application is able to make searches based on questions such as ‘What will oil prices be in 2050?’ or ‘How much will global temperatures rise over the next 100 years?’ and find relevant information and forecasts from today’s web. For example, a search for the year 2034 turns up ‘space travel’ as the most relevant topic indexed in today’s news.

Yep, rich indexing, facets, and understanding text are in use.

What these two examples make clear, in my opinion, is that:

Search is broken. If an established product delivers inadequate findability, why hasn’t Microsoft just solved the problem? If off the shelf solutions are available from numerous vendors, why hasn’t Microsoft bought the ones which fix up SharePoint and call it a day? The answer is that none of the existing solutions deliver what users want. Sure, search gets a little better, but the SharePoint search problem has been around for a decade and if search were such an easy problem to solve, Microsoft has the money to do the job. Still a problem? Well, that’s a clue that search is a tough nut to crack in my book. Marketers don’t have to make a system meet user needs. Columnists don’t even have to use the systems about which they write. Pity the users.

Writing about whiz bang new systems funded by government agencies is more fun than figuring out how to get these systems to work in the real world. If SharePoint search does not work, what effort and investment will be required to predict the future via a search query? I am not holding my breath, but the pundits can zoom forward.

The search and retrieval sector is in turmoil, and it will stay that way. The big news in search is that free and open source options are available which work as well as Autonomy- and Endeca-like systems. The proprietary and science fiction solutions illustrate on one hand the problems basic search has in meeting user needs and, on the other hand,  the lengths to which researchers are trying to go to convince their funding sources and regular people that search is going to get better real soon now.

Net net: Search is a problem and it is going to stay that way. Quick fixes, big data, and predictive whatevers are not going to perform serious magic quickly, economically, or reliably without significant investment. InfoWorld seems to see chipper descriptions and assertions as evidence of better search. The Science Daily write up mingles sci-fi excitement with a government funded program to point the way to the future.

Sorry. Search is tough and will remain a chunk of elk hide until the next round of magic is spooned by public relations professionals into the coffee mugs of the mavens and real journalists.

Stephen E Arnold, August 17, 2012

Sponsored by Augmentext



One Response to “Search: A Persistent Disconnect between Reality and Innovation”

  1. Charlie Hull on August 17th, 2012 11:13 am

    I agree with much of what you’ve written. I think the central problem is that ‘Search’ covers such a wide range of user and business requirements, and there will never, ever be a single technological solution to all of them, no matter what the marketers say. Search vendors and consultants should focus on solving business issues in a ground-up, measured fashion rather than promising that Search will suddenly make everything better. We can improve, tune and tweak, but we can’t do magic.

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