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Plumbing

Search, Matches and Self Service

If you have used our search recently, you may have noticed that we just launched a 'new' search in beta. You can either follow the link from the search page or you can try it by clicking here.

So what's the big deal you ask? Visually, we made changes to have cleaner look while getting the results more prominently positioned on the page. Behind the scenes the technology is completely different. The new search is powered by the Google Search Appliance. While our previous search tool has similar potential ability to yield accurate results, it required a high degree of technical expertise to tune. One of the core philosophies in NPR Digital Media's technology team is that we want to be a partner, not a bottleneck to innovation. As part of this we embrace the idea we call 'Self Service' — the antithesis to maintaining a technology fiefdom. The idea being the more we can provide empowering tools to our colleagues, the more we can accomplish as a team. Prior to the inventions of the lighter and matches, starting a fire was a cumbersome affair, typically involving a tinderbox, flint and a piece of steel. In modern day we usually take making fire for granted — not because we all have become experts in the discipline, but rather because we have self service tools that work really well. So that is the root of our approach: implement smart, maintainable tools that are easy for people to use.

So it is this same spirit of self service that led to the selection of the search appliance. In this case there was no need to build it ourselves, as other companies had invested quite a lot in making solid search tools. While we think Google is really smart with its search algorithms, even more appealing was the ease of tuning via the appliance's interface. A colleague of ours Javaun Moradi is in charge of search (among many other things). Without making any changes to our code or critical configurations he is able to easily make changes using the GSA interface to help ensure we are indexing and surfacing the results that are desired. Using the variety of information and meta-data available about our content, rules can be defined to bias towards more relevant pages, and make sure to exclude redundant or unnecessary items from the results. Even within the first 24 hours of the tool being up in beta, he informs me that he has already made several tuning changes to help surface information about our shows while also surfacing breaking news.

Another aspect we especially like is the ability of the appliance to render its results in XML. While a suggested implementation is to use XSLT directly on the box to yield result pages, we appreciate the flexibility to make service calls to the appliance and then work with the very clean, portable XML results. Currently we are rendering out the XML results as search result pages using PHP — which mirrors the architecture we use for the rest of the site. We expect in the future we will be able to use this to better integrate other content and features with search, and search with other features.

This leads us to why we are launching this new search in 'beta'. While we have done some tuning and configuration we are still working to get it right. By putting this tool out in a preliminary beta we can watch to see the queries it is getting and tune it to make it better. On the web, seeing how you all actually use our website is the most authoritative way to judge what is working and what isn't. Everyday is an opportunity to improve upon what we did yesterday. One example of this is that we see many searches that people mistakenly believe NPR produce, such as "This American Life" or "A Prairie Home Companion". By seeing that users are making these searches, we can make sure appropriate results are showing up. So whether you are searching for a story you heard this morning, or want to find those performances at Bob Boilen's tiny desk — hopefully we get you what you want. We currently anticipate moving it out of 'beta' and as our primary search tool later this summer as we announce some other changes to our digital media tools and products.

Please share any observations or feedback below, or via this comment tool we setup specifically for the new search. We anticipate numerous improvements in the months ahead.

Happy Searching.

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