My Time at Enterprise Search Europe | BA Insight

I’ve just been at Enterprise Search Europe 2014 (#eseu, The conference is now on its third year, but this was the first year for me.   It was a busy time: I conducted a workshop on SharePoint 2013 search on Monday, chaired the SharePoint track on Tuesday, and gave a keynote speech on Wednesday, along with tons of sessions, discussions, and side meetings.  I love talking about search and laying out solutions to search problems, so this was a real pleasure and a chance to meet lots of new people.

Bringing Different Perspectives Together

The program chair, Martin White, did a fine job of bringing diverse people into the mix.  This conference is focused on the business aspects of Enterprise Search, but several people from academia were on the program – a very nice mix in a field where there are thriving academic communities and conferences, but nearly no overlap with industry.  Martin underscored this by asking me and Elaine Toms, a professor at the University of Sheffield, to do Wednesday’s keynote together.  We made up a format that had us disagreeing on several points – such as whether the field is making real improvements in evaluation and measurement or not.  People told me it was great material and that it was also entertaining to see people fight on stage (no blood was shed).

This conference also mixed vendors and practitioners working with SharePoint search, Open Source search, and other search products.  SharePoint tends to be a world onto itself with lots of SharePoint-focused conferences, and there are strong communities around Lucene and ElasticSearch, but these people rarely meet each other.   Even though I work with Lucene and try to stay abreast of search technology generally, I am definitely focused on SharePoint search.  I had a blast comparing and contrasting how to solve one problem or another with different search technologies and educating open source zealots on how sophisticated you can get with SharePoint search.

On Tuesday night, the conference took over a London Pub and put on a pub quiz with questions about enterprise search (do you know what Gerard Salton’s system was called?) – pretty nerdy but a great icebreaker.  We closed out the pub – a real feat given how late Londoners stay out drinking!

Signs of new interest in search

The search field seems to grow in waves, with continual advances in academia but cycles of innovation and consolidation in the industry. After the acquisitions of the leading search players in 2008-2011 (Autonomy by HP, Endeca by Oracle, and FAST by Microsoft) the industry went into a bit of a lull, with a sense that the industry had reached mainstream adoption and was less innovative – Gartner dropped their Magic Quadrant and Forrester dropped their Wave coverage.  But even though the search core technology is commoditized, there is a lot of innovation happening in enterprise search, and a resurgence including a re-instatement of major analyst coverage.  This conference showed signs of renewed interest in several ways.

Meetups in the UK are booming.  There is an active enterprise search meeting group in London and another in Cambridge; the meetups and training for Lucene and ElasticSearch and Hadoop are overbooked, and at the popular SharePoint Saturday events, search content is very popular. The ESEU didn’t really capitalize on this interest this year, largely because of its focus on the business aspects of search; aside from the workshops on the first day, there wasn’t content catering to the new appetite for more technical information about how to work with enterprise search.   But in talking to people at the conference, it is clear that this is an area of renewed interest especially among the open source and SharePoint communities.

There are new marketplaces for search apps. In the last year the Lucidworks marketplace has opened, and the Office Marketplace started offering SharePoint apps including 57 relating to search.  I also talked with the CEO of a new marketplace called intelblocks, which is about to premier a new marketplace focused entirely on search components and apps.

There are also several new entrants in the field. Several of these exhibited at the conference, and I have noticed several more in the last 6 months.   As I mentioned in my keynote, 36% of the new venture funding in 2013 went to information management; this is another indication of an upcoming surge in interest and activity in enterprise search.

The great divide remains

For years, the search field has had a huge gap between the potential and the success stories of the few and the frustrating reality of the many.  I call this the ‘great divide’ and it was clearly evident at this conference.

Some of the case studies at the conference really did everything right, including some great search-driven applications at AstraZeneca and at the Dutch government.  For old-timers in the industry there really is a sense that we know how to make search successful.   The advanced search deployments happening today are remarkable and the value when things are done well is clear and compelling.

Yet the average state of search is remarkably low.  People routinely ignore basic practices and find themselves flailing or failing.  When I talk about the ‘search immaturity cycle’ and BA Insight’s findings about what practices and approaches divide successful projects and failing ones, there are a few people who already know these but it’s news to the vast majority of people, who are truly hungry for a recipe for success.  It seems like the advances in technology and techniques are barely keeping up with (or even losing ground to) the explosion of information and the rising user expectations generated by our everyday experience with consumer search applications.  This was palpable in the workshop I gave, but also clear in several of the presentations about ‘lessons learned’.

What’s different in Europe?

In some ways this conference is the same as its equivalent in the states – roughly the same size, many of the same vendors, many of the same issues and challenges.  But there are some clear differences that struck me.   I don’t mean the truisms about how Europeans know how to live better than Americans (on average), from work/live balance to approach to food and culture generally.   I mean a few things that are specific to search:

  • Multilingual search hardly ever comes up as a requirement in the states but understandably it is much more prevalent in Europe.   (It’s still very hard and I have seen only a handful of truly great multilingual search applications.)   The emphasis lends to computational linguistics and text analytics is fascinating.
  • There are some strong government programs supporting search and some national pride in local vendors, which lends a more varied and somewhat more academic flavor to some of the search products.
  • The practice of having a consultancy help define a project and another one implement it seems more prevalent in Europe, which can be harder for search projects because they lend themselves to agile, iterative approaches.

I am headed to the equivalent conference in the States next week, so I will look at this with some fresh eyes.

All in all, Enterprise Search Europe was a great conference, and I definitely recommend it.  Good content, good discussions, good company….looking forward to next year already!

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