Friday, January 28, 2011

Semantic Searching

The crew of Challenger's last mission 
Improvements to search engines make searching easier.

Take the semantic application, for example. According to their site information, hakia is a semantic search technology company whose mission is to "deploy semantic search solutions to meet the challenges of elevated user expectation, business efficiency and lowest cost."  [source]

To no small extent, "elevated user expectation" stems from the frustration users experience when they can't quite figure out the right keywords to use or right databases to search in Web 1.0 and 2.0 worlds. Remember when search engines ONLY performed literal searches? There are still some of those around, but a new generation of engines is getting to the place where natural language (or free text) searches start to be meaningful to machines.

With improvements in programming and programming languages it is now possible to type in a question as a query and have a search engine interpret the meaning and return relevant results. There will continue to be advances, but this is well beyond the capabilities of the old "ask Jeeves" engine.

This has obvious implications for teaching students how to turn questions into queries, which has always been a challenge.  In time, questions could be the standard for queries.  Keyword searching will still work, but the user won't have to figure out what the important concepts are, which keywords might need to be replaced by more powerful search terms and what stop words not to include.

These advances don't solve the problem of whether the information returned can be trusted, but I have a feeling that isn't too far away. In the not too distant future, search engines will be able to provide a credibility rating based on authorship information, publication date, links to and a host of other factors. The semantic web makes establishing and checking these kind of data connections behind the scenes possible. Authors could have a "credibility score." Not sure how that would be determined, but the technology exists to do it.

A challenging thought, to be sure.

Despite "information crunching" advances that will make (supposedly reliable) information retrieval easier and easier, something tells me being a critical reader will never go out of fashion.

In the meantime, try a question search using!  (e.g., what caused the Challenger disaster -- what do the results tell you?)

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