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Sunday, 4th January 2009

Federated Search: A Year of Blogging

By Sol Lederman


I started the Federated Search Blog on 3 December 2007. It's been a year full of major life changes, tremendous learning and much personal growth.

I jumped off a cliff; I quit a full-time job a year ago October with no other work in sight. I didn't know at the time that I would become a full-time consultant and a paid writer. I didn't know that I would create, from scratch, a blog about federated search. It's been a great year of blogging in which I believe I've provided great value to readers. I've had major challenges and rewards along the way. I'd like to share some highlights of the past year.

How it all started

The idea of creating a federated search blog surfaced during conversations among the staff of federated search vendor, Deep Web Technologies (DWT.) While there were some blogs that published occasional articles about the field, none were dedicated to the subject. DWT founder (and my brother), Abe Lederman, had the vision to create a dedicated blog and he was willing to fund it. I had worked for DWT for five years, I understood the technology, and I had a knack for communicating technical ideas simply. Plus, I was writing for my math blog,, that had experienced early success; one of its articles made it to the front page of Digg and got 40,000 views from Digg in one day. I was the obvious candidate - I was hired and the blog was born.

As ‘the voice' of the blog, I've had to come to terms with the reality that having a sponsor who is a vendor in the industry I am writing about puts some major constraints on what I can blog about. I obviously can't bash DWT in my posts. I also can't write derogatory things about DWT's competitors as that would lead readers to question my credibility. So, I have to tow the middle line and keep my posts vendor-neutral. This means that, for better or worse, I can't write those controversial or gossipy posts that get people all riled up - I'll never be the Jerry Springer of federated search, that's for sure!

Having a sponsor also means that I need to promote DWT. This raises the challenge of writing about DWT without sounding like a mouthpiece for them. I achieve this in several ways. Firstly, I write about DWT only occasionally. Secondly, I am upfront in my posts that they sponsor my writing. Thirdly, I try diligently to make sure that those ‘self-serving' articles have sufficient educational value to readers and that they don't read like sales copy. And, finally, I invite DWT's competitors to contribute to the blog, although vendor participation has been very limited.

An educational resource

Beyond the limitation of being sponsored by an industry vendor, I've also had to deal with some other challenges. While I had five years of experience with DWT's technology before starting the blog, I didn't have much exposure to products of other vendors, nor was I steeped in the library community. Additionally, I haven't had much access to products since it's very tough in this industry to get vendors to provide demos of their applications to someone who is not a serious customer (look for vendor demos on the Web if you don't believe me). Finally, given my focus on being vendor-neutral, I couldn't write bad reviews even if I found serious flaws in products.

At this point, you may be wondering what I do write about. I provide lots of educational content. I inform readers about how the technology works. I review relevant blog and journal articles. From time to time, I write articles that are purely fun. In a nutshell, the blog has evolved into a valuable educational resource for the library community and for others interested in the technology. I daresay the blog has become the authority on federated search.

Challenges aside, blogging has brought me a number of personal rewards. The personal satisfaction of creating and nurturing a blog from its inception has been great. The blog ranks number 2 for the phrase ‘federated search,' second only to Wikipedia's coverage of the subject. That's pretty exciting. And the blog went from zero to over 500 RSS readers in less than a year. I didn't know when I started the blog, nor do I know now, what the potential readership is for a federated search blog. Nonetheless, it's nice to write articles that keep this many readers coming back for more. Without readers, I'd be talking to myself; I never forget that and I'm quite grateful to each person who reads a post and supports my work.

Hot topics

I've been particularly pleased with the popularity of a number of articles. Proxy servers and federated search is the most read article. It is one of the educational articles I wrote to explain concepts related to federated search. How proxy servers work is not intuitive to many people, hence the popularity of that article. It's a contest! Predict the future of federated search was the second most read article. It introduced the writing contest and it was an article that I promoted heavily. Federated search: 10 unrealistic expectations is a popular ‘myth buster' article. It succeeded, in part, because ‘list articles,' i.e. those that present information in a bulleted list format, generally do well if the content is compelling. It also succeeded, I believe, because many readers can identify with the myths it presented.

One final article I'd like to mention is Google to stop crawling the Web: will federate it instead. This was a purely silly article; it was an April Fools' joke. Surprisingly enough, one of the first people to read it didn't recognize it as satire so I ended up identifying it as humour at the end of the article.

In addition to having a number of articles get broadly read, I derived great pleasure in interviewing industry luminaries. I have the fun job of identifying and interviewing individuals who have contributed significantly to shaping the industry. Writing those interview questions is a tough job but getting to know very influential people has been a real joy. I've identified and interviewed four luminaries to date: Kate Noerr, Todd Miller, Michael Bergman, and Erik Selberg. I won't tell you here why I selected these individuals; you can read their interviews and discover why for yourself.

Yet another highlight of running the blog was the writing contest we ran late last year. DWT sponsored it. The contest challenged blog readers to write an essay predicting the future of federated search. The winner gets a $500 cash prize, his or her entry published in the Computers In Libraries Magazine, and participation in a panel discussion at the 2009 Computers In Libraries conference. The great part of running the contest has been knowing that the winner's life will be changed for the better by participating. Being published in a major industry magazine and participating in a panel discussion alongside industry experts is just the sort of thing that can propel one's career to the next level. It's great to be a part of this kind of transformation.

Creating relationships

No sharing of my experience with the blog would be complete without acknowledging Carl Grant for his ongoing support, as a contributor of articles to the blog - and very popular ones I should add - as a cheerleader for the blog, and as a wise friend. I got to know Carl when he was president of CARE Affiliates, and I have had the pleasure to continue the friendship when he took on the role of president of Ex Libris, North America. I've grown to greatly respect Carl, not just for his vast wealth of experience in the library world but also for his passion for the industry. Thank you, Carl, for everything.

Beyond the personal pleasures, creating relationships has been the most important aspect of my blogging. Through the LinkedIn federated search community, over 100 of us have the opportunity to network with one another. Through the blog, DWT has made some valuable connections. I have certainly benefited from networking with blog readers and with Jane Dysart and Dick Kaser of Information Today.

In this challenging economic and business climate, relationships are what matter the most. I hope that the Federated Search Blog has helped you to develop important relationships.

By Sol Lederman

Sol Lederman is the primary author of the Federated Search Blog, a blog solely dedicated to the federated search industry. Sol also blogs for the US Department of Energy's Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) Blog, primarily about OSTI's accomplishments and technology. Sol's first love is mathematics; he enjoys giving away prizes to people who can solve math problems that he presents through his personal blog, Wild About Math!

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