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Q&A With François Bourdoncle, CEO Of Exalead
Exalead is one of those great search engines that most people haven’t heard of. And that’s a shame, because it offers some really powerful and unique features that most information professionals love.
Exalead is also the name of an enterprise search company, co-founded by today’s Q&A participant, François Bourdoncle. Working on web technologies from the very early days, he co-founded Exalead in 2000 with the goal of revolutionizing the search engine software market by providing users with a unified technology platform to access information in the enterprise. Exalead.com, the web search engine, showcases the company’s capabilities in search.
Francois and Exalead also play a key role in the development of the government-funded pan-European search engine Quaero, which has had its share of controversy. Read on for our Q&A…
You have a long history in web search, having worked on the LiveTopics search refinement tool for AltaVista back in 1996-97, among other things. What are the most notable changes you’ve observed in the web search world over the past decade?
I am intrigued by the sheer number of searches conducted daily. The volume is a reflection that search has moved to the center of all we do online and, for that matter, offline. Using a PC has changed from simply creating a document or some other file form to a process that revolves around search. We’ve seen the development of search-centric computing and search-based online activities.
Further, we’re seeing search evolve from a consumable process, that is entering a keyword or two, running the query, finding it and moving on from there. Search activities are increasingly involving the creation of a temporary – or long-term – storage or archiving of the search input and findings.
Lastly, there is a negative development we’re seeing, one that everyone is aware of, if not experiencing: frustration. Finding information continues to be harder than it should be. People quickly lose patience if they can’t find what they’re searching for right away, yet most search engines essentially ask people to scroll through lists and lists on pages and pages of results, without any automated organizational assistance.
Exalead offers a lot more information on search result pages than other search engines, including thumbnail images, and an option to display other content from a site including directory listings, audio, video or RSS feeds. Are your users interacting with these additional details?
The short answer is: without a doubt, yes. These features are what set Exalead apart from other Web search engines, and help to increase our customer loyalty and usage. Over the past 18 months, most recently in New York, we’ve been conducting intensive research studies to gain insight into users’ search habits and preferences.
What we’ve found is that the thumbnail images Exalead offers for all search results is the most popular feature. We’ve designed the user interface so that users can turn this feature on or off, but the feedback we’ve received is that the ability to search visually is a huge advantage. The Internet is second-nature for most people today, especially the younger generations, as young as high school students. They don’t like to be slowed down by having to click through to a new browser window to see results.
The way we also present “in-context” audio, video, and RSS content makes it very easy for novice users to find multimedia content on the Web.
Exalead uses Open Directory Project data for directory listings, and it also looks like you give a relevance boost to sites included in the ODP. A lot of people have said that the ODP is walking dead now, with little if any development or maintenance of the directory. Have you found that to be the case?
We use ODP as a way to categorize search results in a richer way that what our automatic classification technology (Related Terms) provides. This has proven very useful for our “Search By Serendipity”™ search experience. It is true that ODP has been less frequently updated than it used to be, and that social tagging sites are now being used as a way to organize the Web. We are working on this new trend actively and will introduce new products later this year.
I’ve been critical of tagging, because most people apply tags carelessly. Tags on the web lack a controlled vocabulary and aren’t based on disciplined ontologies, so they can be ambiguous or even misleading. How do you remove the “noise” from tags to make them useful?
I am not sure that tags and disciplined ontologies serve the same purpose. Disciplined ontologies are best used for organizing “long-lived information,” whereas tags are best used for quick & efficient organization of “short-lived information,” such as project-related documents, bookmarks, etc. Therefore, tags offer an interesting trade-off between ease-of-use vs. efficiency for finding relevant information. An interesting example of a mixed approach is Wikipedia, which uses semi-controlled tags that are very similar to ontologies, with the exception that they are not hierarchical.
Your advanced search offers some great features no other web search engine offers – things like phonetic search, approximate spelling, proximity and so on. Other search engines say they don’t offer these because they are costly and searchers don’t use them. Why does Exalead have them?
Our raison d’être is to make search easier, less frustrating and more efficient for everyone. Our advanced features help make searching on exalead.com a more satisfying experience. Both novice and so-called power-searchers use these features to serve their own purposes, to their own advantages. The notion that those features and functions drive up the cost is bogus; expense management occurs at the core infrastructure level, not at the functional level, which would include advance search features. Also, using an enterprise search technology to power a Web search engine is the easiest way to provide these features efficiently.
Your “about” page states: “It also adapts to user habits for a uniquely satisfying and efficient search experience.” Does Exalead do personalization or tailor search results for individual users? If so, how does this work?
Yes and no. Right now users can personalize their home page by creating shortcuts, selecting a language preference or by deciding how they want to view results. In the near future, Exalead will be unveiling new search 2.0 features that take personalization and search organization to an entirely new level. We’ll have more to say on that for another Q&A in the not-too-distant future.
There are two ends to the personalization spectrum: Google’s approach, which essentially observes your behavior and adjusts accordingly, without much other input from you, and Yahoo’s approach, which requires you to explicitly shape your personal web. I like the automated approach but I find it frustrating that Google won’t let me “override” results I personally consider poor. What is Exalead’s approach? And how do you balance personalization with privacy concerns?
Personalization is indeed a very important aspect of search, and one that Exalead is heavily investing in. As usual, we are trying to find the right trade-off between automation and flexibility, and will come up with new ideas for having the “best of both worlds” in our forthcoming products.
What is your or Exalead’s involvement with Quaero, the European search engine funded by governments?
I must note Quaero is one of the most talked-about, least-understood research projects in recent memory. Quaero is a research initiative funded, in part by the French government and, until recently, the German government. Quaero, which in Latin means “to search,” is focused on multimedia search (audio, video, music, images, etc.).
Exalead is one of the four lead companies in the project. These leaders define what the R&D objectives in the project ought to be. Over time, the four leaders will integrate some of Quaero’s technologies into their products, when these technologies become mature enough. Our search technology is also used by other project members.
Despite what some politicians have said, Quaero is not a collaborative effort aimed at creating a “Google killer.” It is a research project on multimedia search technologies, period. In particular, image tagging, speech-to-text and machine translations, etc. It may very well produce technology or technology advancements that improve search, but Exalead is pursuing its own course of product development and go-to-market activity. What comes of Quaero will not determine what Exalead becomes or offers.