A new line of inquiry

Type "rice" into a search engine and watch what happens. You get Rice University, rice recipes and Condoleezza, the national security adviser. Not very helpful if you are looking for statistics on rice imports and exports.

That's the problem with most search engines: They retrieve lots of information, but most of it isn't what you need, said Suresh Shenoy, executive vice president of Information Management Consultants Inc.

But new "guided navigation" technology takes searching to a new level of precision.

Where a typical search engine will retrieve all the documents it can find that contain the word "rice," a guided navigation search will retrieve "rice" documents, but also sort them into categories, perhaps dozens of them, including one for rice import and export statistics.

Shenoy said this capability could be just the breakthrough government agencies need to impose a degree of organization on their fast-expanding stores of information. And his company is selling the capability to government agencies in a product called the InfoRevelation Solution.

The solution is built around Guided Navigation, a search technology developed by Endeca Technologies Inc. Guided Navigation works on databases much like a menu works in a restaurant, said Steve Papa, Endeca's chief executive officer.

Menus arrange food in logical categories, making it easy for diners to make meal selections. But in addition to appetizers, entrees and desserts, Guided Navigation might also offer categories such as meals under $10 and low-calorie desserts.

In that way, Guided Navigation makes it possible to search quickly and easily without knowing exactly what you're looking for. "You're able to explore information along many dimensions," Shenoy said. "That's very different from a search engine, which is two-dimensional."

Guided Navigation has already found some commercial successes. It is used by Tower Records to arrange a half-million music and video titles for easy browsing by genre, format, price, music style, artist and other categories.

Picking a genre — say, country — leads to about a dozen subcategories such as bluegrass, cowboy or western swing. And each of those can be further refined by price, artist, release year and other categories.

Shenoy said IMC discovered Guided Navigation while looking for a way to search and compare vast quantities of genetic data. "We needed an easy way to categorize information," he said.

"We saw then that there were all kinds of requirements for it in government," where agencies maintain large and growing databases of unstructured data, he said. Important data is maintained in e-mail, videos, photos, voice mails and other formats. As long as there are data tags, Guided Navigation can find and categorize it, Papa said.

For many agencies, the difficulty finding information stems from having lots of it stored in different formats in separate databases. That's not a problem for Guided Navigation, said Dave Gourley, Endeca's chief technology officer.

The company simply writes "an adapter" for each database. The adapters are able to pull information from their particular databases, and Guided Navigation presents it in a format that is understandable to the user.

Guided Navigation received a positive evaluation in May from content management and retrieval experts Susan Feldman and Mary Flanagan, who are analysts at IDC. The Endeca search technology "is faster and less frustrating than plowing through thousands of randomly ordered search results" produced by a typical search engine, they wrote in a report last month.

And "Guided Navigation represents an evolutionary step in the usability and scalability of search and retrieval technologies," they wrote. Competing solutions are often technically complicated or cannot easily handle large databases.

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Sorting through the muddle

Information Management Consultants Inc.'s InfoRevelation Solution is powered by Endeca Technologies Inc.'s Guided Navigation, which sorts information to make it easier to find what you're looking for.

For example, if an FBI agent were to look in the bureau's databases for information on a crime suspect named John Smith, Guided Navigation would search FBI databases, retrieve John Smith files and arrange them in useful categories: by state, ethnicity, criminal record and so on, said Steve Papa, Endeca's chief executive officer.

Instead of plowing through a long list of records, the agent would be able to focus quickly on the John Smiths that have been associated with, say, bank robberies in California.

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