On the occasion of the Googlebox end of life news, it is time to talk about what a weak product it really was.
Sandia Labs was an Ultraseek customer and ran a relevance experiment where Ultraseek trounced the Google Search Appliance. But first some history.
Many of the US national laboratories used Ultraseek. I don’t remember how it started, but I was invited to give talks about search at two of their IT conferences, one at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (auditorium named after Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner) and one at SLAC, Stanford Linear Accelerator (first website outside Europe).
The labs were quite happy with Ultraseek, but at Sandia, the search team was asked to evaluate the Google Search Appliance. Like good scientists, they set up an experiment. They formatted the results from the two engines in similar, anonymous styles. They set up a table in the cafeteria, offering free cookies for people to try searches and choose the best results from the two engines.
This is a simple but very effective evaluation technique. I like it because it judges the whole result set, both ranking and presentation. It isn’t good for diagnostics, but it is great for customer satisfaction. I call this approach “Kitten War“.
Ultraseek won the experiment, 75% to 25%. That is a three-to-one preference. I’ve never seen that magnitude in a search experiment. In search, we break out the champagne when we get a one percentage point improvement in clickthrough. I’m not kidding. This is beyond massive.
Whoever was pushing Google at Sandia asked them to re-run the experiment with the logos. With that change, Google won 55% to 45%.
Also, performance? Ultraseek was spec’ed for 15 queries/sec and surpassed that spec. The first release of the Googlebox was spec’ed at 30 queries/min, thirty times slower. They later increased that to 60 queries/min. That is one query per second.
Ultraseek actually ran at around 25+ qps, though some new features dropped us closer to 15 qps.
We were the public search engine for irs.gov through Anderson Consulting. Instead of reading the specs, Anderson promised what they had measured instead of the specs, then complained to us. They were massive a-holes about it, even after I made it very clear that it was their fault. But we made Ultraseek even faster, because who wants the IRS search to be slow? irs.gov ran a cluster of fifteen Ultraseek servers. Would not want to try and make that rate with Googleboxes.
Sadly, the relevance test was the point when Ultraseek should have just given away the source code and gone home. The Google logo was enough to sell a massively inferior product. There was nothing we could do in engineering, sales, whatever, to compete with the Google logo.
Sandia Labs did stay with Ultraseek and we continued on for a number of years, but the writing was on the wall.