Search Engines: The 1999 Conference

Article excerpt

Susan Feldman is president of Data-search and a principal owner of Data-search Labs, a new independent usability testing company. Her e-mail address is

Visualization was the 'star of the show' at the recent Infonortics-sponsored meeting in Boston

Search Engines is a small conference that packs a wallop. Now in its fourth year, this Infornortics conference crosses the lines between professions and disciplines, and the mix is heady. Search engine designers from major Web and non-Web search engines, information professionals who design intranets, professional searchers, researchers from the information retrieval world, and researchers in visualization and user studies all crossed paths, and occasionally crossed swords. This year, the attendees left stuffed with ideas, and suffering from writer's cramp. At least I did.


Three themes emerged during these two intense days: visualization, metadata and categorization, and pursuit of the elusive user.

Visualization was the star of this show. As James Wise noted in his half-day seminar on the subject, people are visual animals. We can process more visual information and process it more quickly if it's in the form of graphs, charts, or pictures than if it is text. Those of us in information-intense fields are burdened with more text than we 1must be able to explore the information we receive in some sort of intuitive spatial format. Color, shape, and proximity to other shapes can convey information quickly. Landscapes and galaxies of stars are good approaches because they are familiar forms.

All kinds of visual representations turned up at this conference. Cartia's ( virtual maps of topics retrieved by a search look like a geological survey map. They map a subject terrain in understandable, easy-to-view terms--if a hill is high, it has lots of documents. A valley indicates that there is not much there. Spotfire ( is a clever way to map several topics using colors and dots. It can also graph topics on a timeline. Wise's own galaxy approach shows clusters of documents. The closer they are, the more similar their meaning. For those of you wondering how this is done, usually similarity between documents is calculated using some variation of the vector space model that Gerald Salton pioneered.

Many of the presenters at this conference were experimenting with visualizations to help the user navigate through large sets of documents, or improve a query. New data mining systems are also experimenting with visual displays. KNOW-IT from TextWise ( shows two concepts linked by the kind of relationship that binds them. (See Figure 1.) Imagine that a system could show what caused an event to occur, in a visual format. The user would be able to grasp the significance of that relationship much more readily than if he had to plow through 10 documents himself.

The InXight Hyperbolic Browser, developed at Xerox PARC, uses hierarchies to break up large collections of things into small usable chunks ( (See Figure 2.) Both InXight's and TextWise's tools invite interaction, You are presented with top-level categories. Clicking on topics lets you drill down to more specific subjects, or, at the end of the road, to a list of documents in that category. How will people use this novel approach to browse for and explore information?

Metadata and categorization was by far the most surprising trend to those of us from the library world. Ev Brenner, who is one of the conference organizers and who is astonished at this return to the past, chaired a panel that examined whether the need for categorization was valid. It seems that the automatic categorization in use today is an attempt to solve two problems: multiple meanings of terms, and the user's need to understand the contents of either a search or a large collection of Web pages. …