FAST’s Enterprise Search and Local Apps

FAST put on its own kind of MacWorld this week in San Diego, evangelizing the way to its “enterprise search” solutions for every kind of customer, including major local players such as MediaNews Group, The Washington Post, InfoSpace, Scandinavian publishing giant Schipsted, and the online directory efforts from Deutsche Telekom and Portugal Telecom. The event, attracting about 800  double last year’s count  was one of the most interesting I’ve been to for a while.

To my untutored mind, enterprise search has mostly meant “not Google.” FAST most decidedly is seeking to provide an alternative to Google, even extending its platform this week with “AdMomentum,” an AdWords-like ad platform.

But the question I’ve asked myself about FAST, and its pitch to corporate customers, is whether comprehensive “enterprise” solutions are overkill (and overly expensive) for the search needs of local media and directory companies. After all, don’t they mostly want to point their customers to the right landing page, even when misspelled or miscategorized?

Harvard Business School Professor Andrew McAfee concedes the point. Simple applications like e-mail are “good,” he says. To get customers to trade up, it needs to be “10 times better,” he says. But it is, he argues.

What McAfee terms “Enterprise 2.0” is more than a feature  it is the next disruptor. For local media companies, it is the meaningful integration of structured (news, directory, map, B2B, classified, encyclopedia) and unstructured data (Web, images, news).

When session moderator Michael Schrage suggested, perhaps playing devil’s advocate, that the search feature was simply “the box on the right-hand corner of the home page,” he was politely corrected. In fact, the search solution is capable of dictating the contents of the entire page.

Relying on user feedback and FAST “presets” of the importance of different categories, such as “geographic proximity” or “age,” search now plays a key role in determining a page’s featured content, multimedia, subscription feed, calls to action, ads, user-generated content and third-party content. “Search is becoming the entire experience,” notes Forrester analyst Matt Brown. “It is the ultimate expression of intention.”

The importance of enterprise search is especially vital in an era of user-generated content. Reed Business Search President Stephen Baker said that the risk of giving control of content to user control is that you mitigate the benefits of the Web 2.0 platform (SEO, preferential content delivery, etc.). The enterprise search solution gives back the control aspect.

But what can a local media company do with it? MediaNews Group Vice President Teresa Lawler says that the company had weighed using several other firms, including Planet Discover and Endeca. But FAST’s enterprise search, while expensive, promised to play a key role in telling advertisers, across MNG’s 200 sites, “everything they need to know to optimize and reach their customers.”

Lawler says that FAST’s search data is in the process of being married with Omniture’s usage data and Tacoda‘s behavioral data. “We’re sucking up all that data.” She says that it is proving especially important this spring, as the company relaunches the San Jose Mercury News’ Web site, in concurrence with several smaller Bay Area papers that it has long owned.

Most local media firms, of course, aren’t going to invest so heavily in solutions. What Lawler is talking about is expensive and requires a lot of time and expertise. But if the results give users and advertisers what they want, it may suffice to make the newspapers and other local media compelling enough to suspend doubts about the industry as a whole.

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