So you think you can run a search conference…

February 9, 2009
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Today is the first day of FASTForward ‘09, the annual user conference hosted by FAST (the enterprise search company acquired by Microsoft last year). I thought it would be a good day to reflect on the variety of search-related conferences and user groups that are competing for our attention and wallets these days.

First, there are the vendor user conferences. These include FASTForward, Endeca Discover, and a slew of events hosted by smaller vendors. These are great events for those vendors’ current customers, and occasionally are used as sales tools to persuade select prospective customers. At their best, they emphasize knowledge sharing among customers, as well as substantive presentations about the vendors’ products and services. At their worst, they offer a mixture of propaganda and entertaining (but not necessarily relevant) guest lectures. And they aren’t cheap: it’s $795 to attend Discover and $1,695 for FastForward – plus travel and lodging! Still, if you learn something that saves you a few days of consulting services, you’ll get your money’s worth…

Today is the first day of FASTForward ‘09, the annual user conference hosted by FAST (the enterprise search company acquired by Microsoft last year). I thought it would be a good day to reflect on the variety of search-related conferences and user groups that are competing for our attention and wallets these days.

First, there are the vendor user conferences. These include FASTForward, Endeca Discover, and a slew of events hosted by smaller vendors. These are great events for those vendors’ current customers, and occasionally are used as sales tools to persuade select prospective customers. At their best, they emphasize knowledge sharing among customers, as well as substantive presentations about the vendors’ products and services. At their worst, they offer a mixture of propaganda and entertaining (but not necessarily relevant) guest lectures. And they aren’t cheap: it’s $795 to attend Discover and $1,695 for FastForward – plus travel and lodging! Still, if you learn something that saves you a few days of consulting services, you’ll get your money’s worth.

Then there are the vendor-independent industry conferences. A few that are coming up:

The good news about these is that, because they are vendor-independent conferences, you’re likely to hear a variety of perspectives. If they’ve selected their speakers well, you’ll learn about the different technologies even the philosophies underlying those technologies. If not, then be braced for a bunch of warmed-over sales pitches. Because that’s the bad news: it’s hard to run a for-profit search conference and actually make a profit–and no, these usually aren’t cheap either. The main sponsors are usually vendors and consultancies, which is both expected and appropriate. The sponsorship model only becomes a problem when the speakers earn their slots through sponsorship rather than through the merits of their content.

And then there are the academic conferences, particularly CIKM and SIGIR. The good news with these is that the content is top-notch: peer-reviewed presentations from top researchers around the world, hailing from both academia and industry – the latter usually representing the major industry research labs. They are also relatively inexpensive, since they are run by non-profit organizations and rely heavily on volunteers. The bad news is that research isn’t always immediately relevant to practice. Indeed, some of the presentations will make your head spin twice: first, as you focus to understand them, second, as you struggle to figure out how to apply their results or key insights to your real-world problems.

In my opinion, all of these leave a gap – a need for conferences that bring the rigor and seriousness of academia to bear on content that is relevant to industry practitioners. I’m hoping that the SIGIR ‘09 Industry Track helps fill this gap. But I further hope that everyone in the conference-organizing business, regardless of their business model, shares the aspiration to deliver quality content that has real impact on the practical world of search.

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