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Endeca Discover 2007 – Moving Beyond Retail Search

Chances are, you’ve used a website powered by Endeca, even if you didn’t know it. Retail powerhouses like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Nike, and many more rely on Endeca technology to drive their customer-facing websites, and for good reason. Endeca’s blend of cutting-edge technology and strong focus on user experience make it the clear choice for helping consumers find exactly what they need in a world of ever-expanding product catalogs and ever-intensifying competition.

Guided Navigation

The backbone of Endeca’s retail success is “Guided Navigation”, their patented technology that presents users with an extremely effective presentation of potentially intimidating data, and allows them to narrow in on exactly what they’re looking for with a minimum of effort and confusion.

The key to the success of Guided Navigation is that it allows users to refine their search across different dimensions in any order they might want. All users are different, and where one might want to narrow their search first by size, then color, then price, another might start with price, then manufacturer, then features, etc. If you build your website in a way that forces users to order or prioritize their refinements in a particular way, you make it unnatural for any users that might think about the content differently from you, which inevitably, is almost all of them. Guided Navigation frees you from this trap by presenting users with any and all available directions at once, in a clear and concise representation.

This is essential for effectively navigating a large retail product catalog, but the same technology can be pivotal for other content-rich “behind-the-firewall” applications, as well. Instead of navigating a retail catalog by price, size, or manufacturer, users of these internal enterprise applications might be interested in aspects of their critical business content like domain, author, client, or any number of other aspects specific to a particular business’ operations. Bringing the power of Guided Navigation to the knowledge management space has been the key to several successful projects for Blue Fish, including an application driving the management of information for the world-wide sales force at Dell. Endeca has also recognized these types of applications as a huge opportunity for leveraging their technology to expand into new domains.

Discover 2007

The theme of Discover 2007, this year’s annual Endeca user conference, was “Everyday Discovery”, and the intent is quite clear – Endeca wants to become a pervasive technology. Ten years ago, people would think you were crazy if you talked about “Googling” something, but now, Google has become such an integral part of the information world that it has its own verb. Endeca wants to become that integral as well.

It’s evident by looking at this conference itself that Endeca is doing quite well. The more than 300 attendees represented organizations that ranged from manufacturing companies to financial services firms to government agencies to religious booksellers, all of whom are using Endeca in one form or another. But amid the usual assortment of customer appreciation awards and impressive statistics was another theme that wasn’t often said out loud, but whose message was clear – “Endeca is more than just retail search.”

Beyond Retail

As highlighted at the conference, many of the new features in Endeca’s latest release speak directly to their desire to drive business beyond the retail space where they are already the clear leader. Support for 64-bit architectures and “big-business” platforms like AIX (How many small, or even medium sized, business do you know that run AIX?), virtualization, and advanced management interfaces show an increased and pointed interest in opportunities for developing behind-the-firewall enterprise applications, where the indexes consist of more than just product catalog data and leverage aspects of hundreds of millions of content-rich business-critical documents.

With those opportunities come new demands, as well. When you have millions of documents, you can’t capture all that content with a simple taxonomic structure, and searching needs to be about more than keywords. If you’re trying to find that one needle in a haystack document, you need all the help you can get – in short, you need the system to read and analyze everything before you even get to it, sort and organize it in every possible way, and provide you with the executive summary.

Term Extraction and Concept Clustering, two advanced features of the Endeca platform, speak clearly to these enterprise needs. Term Extraction allows the system to read through all the content, and pull out those terms that are most relevant to the importance of a particular document. Documents can be tagged with these terms that help describe the document in the context of the business. These terms can then be brought together to form Concept Clusters, groups of terms related by their shared occurrence across groups of documents. Knowing that documents about projects under budget tend to coincide with documents about a particular vendor might reveal a valuable nugget of information when planning strategies for future quarters.

Record Relationship Navigation, another new feature, allows you to combine the power of a Guided Navigation system with the querying power of a traditional relational database. Being able to “browse” your corporate data in fluid and meaningful ways is very powerful, and speaks to one of the long-standing weak spots of relational databases – their usability. Business analysts don’t want to sit around writing SQL queries all day long to answer their questions. Record Relationship Navigation has the potential to provide Guided Navigation for business data the same way Endeca has for retail. “Which of my customers bought over a million dollars worth of product last year?” wouldn’t be too hard to get a relational database to answer, but as soon as the natural follow-on questions appear, the queries start to get hairy, and there are too many possible questions to know which one might be the important one at any given time. “Now which of those haven’t bought a million dollars worth this year?…Now which of those are in my segment?…Now which of those are 50 miles from my office, so I can pay them a personal visit?” You get the idea.

Knowledge Management Opportunities

Endeca is hoping that the explicit message of “Everyday Discovery”, combined with their community offerings in the form of EDeN, the Endeca Developer Network, encourages the Endeca community to help them build the ubiquity that Endeca is looking for. And they plan to combine that exposure with the wealth of new capabilities in the Endeca platform to entice the next set of customers, customers who have enterprise level content and enterprise level search challenges.

To take full advantage of the value of their information assets, organizations are increasingly recognizing the need for findability within their vast stores of content. The necessary knowledge management solutions combine advanced search and analysis capabilities with content management capabilities, to provide organizations with the tools that allow them to most effectively search and govern their ever-growing store of information.

At Blue Fish, we’ve been leveraging Endeca’s technologies to develop Knowledge Management solutions for our clients for a couple of years now. Coupled with an Enterprise Content Management platform like EMC’s Documentum, these systems are quite powerful and are quickly embraced by users. This is a big change from typical knowledge management applications, where user adoption tends to be low. It’s exciting to see Endeca embracing this concept, and I look forward to facing the next generation of information access challenges.

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