WalMart Blasts Off with Polaris: Destination Semantic Search
August 31, 2012
I just read “WalMart Rolls out Semantic Search Engine, Sees Business Boost.” The semantic technology “not only helps users find items they want on its Web site, but also delivers results based on their interests and likely intent, the company said Thursday [August 30, 2012].”
Let’s begin with an essay question. What is semantic search? You have 15 minutes, describe how “semantic search works,” name three vendors with profitable semantic search businesses, and identify the strengths and weaknesses of semantic search, including costs and computational requirements.”
I assume you skipped the essay question. I know that Martin White and I struggled to craft a brief, reasonably accurate definition of “semantic search” in our Successful Enterprise Search Management, published by Galatea an eon ago. I think the book is still available at www.galatea.co.uk.
I had to define “semantic search” in my new monograph for Sue Feldman at IDC, and I think I recycled something from Wikipedia. The definition is okay, but I am not comfortable with that definition or any of the definitions I have written over the past few years.
The reason is that “semantic search”, like big data or analytics, is pretty much meaningless. Depending on whom you consult, the speaker trotting out the term, or the company touting its “semantic search” system—there are too many angles on the topic.
Find someone else to grade your exam, pilgrim. Or, better yet, just give yourself an “A” and move on. Easier and in today’s search environment, good enough.
I thought about semantic search when I worked through the flurry of “real” journalists’ and “real” pundits’ writings about Wal-Mart’s semantic search system. You know WalMart, the outfit that made Fairbanks Second Street into a ghost town overnight.
“Wal-Mart’s Homegrown Search Engine Already Paying Dividends” provides the insight which makes my beta blockers work overtime. The article reveals that WalMart has written its own search engine “from scratch.” In today’s world with the open source options readily available, I wonder what “from scratch” means. The story reveals that Endeca is being replaced with Polaris. Endeca, in case you are curious, is one of those late 1990 search engines which has been gobbled by a giant company. In an effort to pump up Endeca’s revenues and pay the estimated $1.1 billion acquisition price, some folks may be worrying about the total cost of ownership of Endeca. I am okay with Endeca but Oracle may not be happy with the pace of revenue growth. ( had heard that Wal-Mart had a brush with Google’s search appliance, but I don’t know if that technology delivered what Sam’s folks needed.)
WalMart offers fewer items, so, the article reports, WalMart had to figure out how to make search work better. The key point in the write up is in my opinion:
The new search engine technology has rolled out to both the Web site and mobile site in the U.S. Wal-Mart is now planning to roll out internationally to Brazil and other countries. @WalmartLabs was created in part by the $300 million acquisition of Kosmix, a data company based in Mountain View, Calif.
Kosmix had a search system, so I am curious about how “new” the technology is which WalMart is using. Kosmix was an interesting system and the company had, at one time, some interactions with Google. (For more information about Kosmix, see “Kosmix: YAGK (Yet Another Google Killer)” and “Kosmix and Its Positioning”.
Another outfit covering search is the estimable Technology Review. “Wal-Mart Dives Into Search Technology” is representative of similar stories in many blogs and trade news coverage. The main idea is that WalMart is aware that WalMart people are going online to buy the treasures from Wuhan which are available in the physical stores. The article makes this point, which strikes me as something quite a few people overlook:
All in all, focusing on search seems like a good move for Wal-Mart, but to fully see the benefits, the company will have to bring shoppers to its site in the first place, rather than competitors’ such as Amazon.
Do I have an opinion about Polaris? Well, owning a search engine sure looks more economical in the long run. Is it? Wal-Mart will know soon enough. And some of the people who are likely to use Wal-Mart’s Web site may just compare prices against Amazon’s and make a decision based on price. WalMart people without computer shopping in their DNA may just grab a cart and cruise a store. In Fairbanks, small towns run a bus to WalMart for shopping. No online connectivity in some places where WalMart has a store. We’re watching.
Stephen E Arnold, August 31, 2012
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