I recently had a chance to chat with Tom Eng, Founder and Chairman of Healia. Healia is a consumer health search engine. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
TE - Healia is a consumer search engine for medical information. We use technology and rules in our search engine to enable users to find information more easily. For example, consumers may not know the relationships between commonly used terms and related results - there is a gap in the medical informatics world between popular consumer terms and medical information; our semantic matching algorithms can match the related medication or drug. We have our own customized taxonomy. We also have our own web crawlers and parsers and indexers, and use quality scoring algorithms to provide high quality search results.
Q - Some medical professionals frown upon patients using the web to look up medical information; they question its reliability, and feel that "Health information should only come from medical professionals!". How do you address that sentiment?
TE - That is an old way of thinking. Consumers today, in any interaction, are no longer passive - they want to drive it themselves. Studies have shown that people turn to the web first for medical information. Even after consulting their primary physician, they feel better after validating the information from other sources, of which the web is a primary example. There has been a major change in attitudes in the last five years, and Healthcare is catching up rapidly in this context. So we don't see this as continuing to be an issue in the future.
Q - Google OneBox is an attempt to provide vertical search functionality from within a Google web search. How do you think this feature will affect you, and Vertical Search Engines in general?
- OneBox and Google Co-op is an improvement, certainly. But using
Google for a medical information search - to find out about diseases,
symptoms, drugs or medical terms - has its limitations.
First, [Google] results are classified based on voluntary self-tagging by the publisher, which has inherent problems: people gaming the system, built-in bias, how many people are able to do this. This approach is not scalable for less-common diseases and conditions. In contrast, Healia uses algorithmic tagging - we use our technology to automatically add tags and relationships to any collection of content. We also use quality scoring algorithms for spam prevention.
Second, we provide a series of filters that allow a user to focus on results that apply to their unique situation, by enabling post-filtering of search results: by user demographics - such as age, sex or heritage, by the type of article - basic or advanced, and so on; this is especially important in a medical context, since symptoms and drugs for a given disease can vary based on patient attributes.
Third, since we apply a semantic network to the content and understand the relationships between commonly used search terms and related results, we can guide the consumer to other related searches or appropriate sources.
Q - Now that Google has released technology to build custom search engines based on their web crawlers, do you see a big threat from third-party content publishers building their own trusted-source search engines or providing canned searches?
TE - Well, Rollyo and Yahoo! Search have provided this type of technology for a while (although Google got more press), and we haven't seen a lot of that yet. A Google-based custom search engine would suffer from many of the same limitations described above. Another issue is the requirement to include AdSense advertising in the search results. Also, this gets the publisher into a field [search] in which they're not experts - they might choose to partner with someone like us instead, with semantic technology, post-search filtering, etc., to guide users and make sure that they can easily find the information they're looking for.
Q - Plus, you may be able to provide related services based on the results or other features specific to the medical domain, something not everyone can do.
TE - That's something we're looking into. Watch this space ...
Q - One word: Powerset. What do you think about the sudden interest in natural-language search?
TE - We already have natural language associations embedded into the semantic technology we use. Natural language for queries - it's been tried before a number of times, so that in itself is not new. I haven't seen the Powerset search engine yet. Let's see what it is and what happens, when it becomes available.
Q - To drop into cliches for a moment: Does Healia serve the Big Head or the Long Tail of Search queries?
TE - I want Healia to be the place for consumers to find the medical information they need. Having said that, a major part of our current business model is to work with partners to provide services. It depends on which part you tackle - we're really only in the beginning stages of our industry. Healthcare is a really important domain for search, possibly the most important kind of search in an individual's life. With high quality and personalization of search results, we're focused on using our technology to help people, so it's more than just a business.
Q - Do you provide an API?
[Note: Healia also provides a widget for web site publishers, available here .]
TE - We do have a web services platform, and an API. At this point, it's not generally available; it's licensed to partners. We have several big customers already using this API, for example, VA (Veterans Administration) uses our WS platform.
Q - What do you see for the future of Vertical Search Engines? Any specific trends?
- We're really at the 1.0 stage for Internet Search - what we've seen
so far is just the beginning. When Alta Vista was the leading search
engine, people thought that was the endgame for search, then Google
came from nowhere and changed everything. I think we will see a shift,
especially now with Vista coming out, where users will simply search
from within the context of wherever they are, rather than going to a
specific site to perform a search. People will default to the easiest
thing to do; for example, if you are on a financial news site, and if
that site offered a vertical search engine that meets your needs, then
you might just search right there. If you had an embedded search within
your application, you could search from within the app. So the future
looks bright for context-specific, personalized search - we will just
enable you to search from wherever you are. It's difficult to imagine
one provider who does this for everyone. In a sense, Internet search is
almost too important a capability to be left to any one company.
Providing the underlying search technology as a service, with a high
quality of results, will become increasingly important in the
Healia is working with partners to provide high quality, personalized search within clients and applications - watch for some exciting announcements and new features in the next couple of quarters.