So you think you can run a search conference…

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.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

9 replies on “So you think you can run a search conference…”

i hope you’ll take a look at Defrag this year. I try very hard to bring some serious discussion to the stage, and think you’ll see us have more and more “academic” type of content in 09.


Eric, thanks for the heads up! I’ve heard of Defrag, and I see some familiar names on the 2008 program, but I’ve never managed to attend it. Glad to hear that you and your colleagues are cranking it up a notch!


Is anyone doing the unconference style search event, which would I think be called SearchCamp? I see one in Philly:

but the focus is not anything near academic:

We’re launching the first ever, SearchCamp here in Philadelphia September 6th and 7th, 2008. Talk about an exciting time to be in the Delaware Valley and to be in online marketing!

Podcamp / SearchCamp Event GuideSince this is our first foray into a “somewhat unconference” conference (the IM-DV group came together to plan the agenda, but there’s open slots to do your own thing if you like), we’ve teamed up with PodCamp Philly to present a weekend of great information by great speakers with a whole bunch of fun. If you don’t walk away with some new ideas, and great things to implement, we’ll be thinking you might have been sleeping through the sessions.


Interesting. While I like the “unconference” style in theory, I think it’s valuable to assemble a critical mass of rock stars to learn from–and it’s hard to do that without some degree of structure and control. Keep an eye on the HCIR workshop this year–based on feedback from last year, we’ll probably make it less structured and more oriented around conversation. But we will still make an effort to ensure that the attendees are folks who can contribute to the discussion. Conversation doesn’t scale arbitrarily–for that, there’s publication.

I’m also intrigued at the emphasis they place on how “no speakers are paid”. No speakers are paid at academic conferences either (including the SIGIR ’09 Industry Track), but I suppose that at least some speakers are paid at industry conferences–and certainly at vendor user groups like FASTForward and Discover.

As an attendee, I’m far more interested in the assurance that speakers aren’t paying in order to have an opportunity to market their wares–or at least that it’s clear when that is the case, so that I can prepare for a sales pitch.



I had some work that I thought was relevant to Defrag, and I was considering contacting Elizabeth Churchill about it.

But then I was listening to a couple of podcasts about Defrag, on IT Conversations, and the conference seemed to be more about coding/hacking/building, than about academic-type discussions.

What is the nature of your “academic” type content goals, for 2009?


I would like to see a conference dedicated to search and user experience. Plenty of general UX conferences around (and general search conferences for that matter), but I would prefer something more focused.

I want to learn from skilled search information architects and interaction designers, without all the distracting sales speak noise.

Perhaps you can show me the way, Daniel?


The UIST and JCDL conferences are the closest I can think of, and of course the HCIR workshops. They may be a bit more academic than you have in mind, but the most practically minded folks aren’t always the most sharing.

You might also check out Jared Spool’s UIE Summits, but perhaps there’s not enough emphasis on search there to make it worth your while. Plus it’s a bit pricier than the academic conferences.


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