904Labs: Goodbye and thanks for all the clicks!

The end of 2019 will mark the fifth anniversary of 904Labs. Wouter and I founded 904Labs in late 2014 and embarked in an adventure of becoming entrepreneurs while holding tight to our scientist trait. We took courses in entrepreneurship, joined our university’s startup incubator, poured all the money we had saved by that moment in the company, and we set sail for bringing state-of-the-art search to the masses. 

A lot has happened in these five years. We met with incredible people in all ranks, involved in from local startups to worldwide multinationals. Each one helped us in their own way, from validating our ideas, shaping our product-A.I. for Search-, to running pilots. We received support from our university, University of Amsterdam, through grants and loans, which helped us go through the development phase of our product and bring it to the market. Within a year since we started, we grew from just two founders to a team of six, and our code base went from a bunch of scripts to a full blown, distributed, horizontally scalable, multi-tenant architecture. In our second year we ran our first pilot, with massive success: A.I. for Search managed to increase search driven revenue by 38%! The same year we had our first big customer and the year after a second, bigger one. By 2019, A.I. for Search has served searches from more than 15 countries and an equal number of languages. It has battled and won in more than 10 A/B tests, in all of which it has proven to substantially increase search driven revenue. Tech-wise, 904Labs has been success story, really. 

Business-wise, the story is slightly different. Wouter and I, our business developers and salespeople, found it hard to sell A.I. for Search. Customers were excited with the tech and the potential, but the deals were not closing. We’ve been banging our heads against the wall for a long time but didn’t manage to find a solution to why the deals were not closing, at least not early enough. Three years in and without a good customer base, we’ve hit a financial storm. We had to let all of our people go, and our offices as well. Despite the financial stress, we decided to keep the company running while hoping for better days; we minimized all possible expenses to squeeze out all the time we could buy until new deals come in–which would allow us to reboot the company. Two years since, we didn’t manage to close new deals, but the epiphany we were looking for since our early days stroke us: deals weren’t closing because we’ve been targeting a very narrow and difficult customer segment, which was insufficient to sustain the company growth we needed and wished for. The realization hit us hard. We spent a lot of time thinking of alternatives but couldn’t find a satisfying alternative. In the beginning of 2019, one of our two customers left, and their departure marked the beginning of winding down 904Labs. 

We decided that despite the difficult customer segment we chose to target, 904Labs’ tech was still magical and had to remain with the world no matter what was the future of 904Labs as company. We’ve reached out to anyone and any entity that we believed our tech will be useful: our professional network, potential customers, competitors. We offered a one time license to our source code. After taking hold of the code one would be able to do whatever they want with it. In the one time license fee, we included our latest version of our code base, our infrastructure, documentation, our processes, and, of course, onsite training and support. We’ve been actively talking with a few companies now, and they will bring in A.I. for Search to either complement and strengthen their offering, or to use it internally in different projects. The next few quarters may bring the company of 904Labs to an end, but its tech will survive, and it will keep helping people find what they’re looking for; by learning from one click at a time, as it used to.

As to what Wouter and I are up to next, it has been a tough decision but we’re on good and exciting new paths. Wouter has joined Zeta-Alpha-Vector, a Dutch deep learning research company based in Amsterdam, and I’m joining Apple in California to work with the Siri Understanding team. While at 904Labs, we both learned so much: building and running a business, developing a product, managing engineering and sales teams. It’s been an invaluable experience. 904Labs gifted us the knowledge of what it takes to build a product in the real-world, which is very different from what we had in mind when we left Academia. By now we know that a product needs to be fun from a tech/scientific perspective but it is equally important to satisfy customers needs and solve specific problems–at the same time it is bound by limited resources, either be it time, people, or budget. Finding the right balance on all three dimensions is key to product success. The lesson may have come late for 904Labs, but we are excited to be able to apply this hard earned knowledge as well as earlier and newly acquired skills to new environments and challenges!

Before waving goodbye, we would like to take a moment and extend a big thank you to everyone who has been involved with 904Labs, directly or indirectly: Our customers, engineers, sales people, university, mentors, shareholders, network, and last, but not least, our families and friends who’ve been very supportive throughout this entire journey. It’s been a fun ride but not always easy. We wouldn’t have made it so far without their support. Thank you!

904Labs Query Intent Engine just got an upgrade and the results look great

Today at 904Labs Search we’ve been having fun with the next version of our Query Intent/Understanding engine.

If you don’t know what a Query Intent/Understanding engine is, here’s some background; otherwise keep reading.

Our Query Intent/Understanding engine is closing to one year old, and it’s pretty cool: it can quickly boostrap a knowledge graph and continuously update it straight from our customer’s data. Since its introduction in September 2017, it has been tested in many different domains and languages and has shown substantial revenue uplift across customers.

In the last couple of weeks, our team has been busy tweaking our engine and pushing it even further. Our Query Intent/Understanding engine was doing already a good job, mapping query free text to product attributes such as category, or brands. However, we’ve never tested going deeper into particular product attributes, such the product weight or even, wattage. Our engineers managed to extend the logic and the scalability of the algorithm to support very fine grained suggestions, if such fine-grained information exists in the index. It is quite a feat and I’m very proud of our team!

On top of the engineering feat, the algorithm itself is pretty lean and has quite a few distinctive features that are hard to find in other engines: it does not depend on external dependencies (read Wikipedia), nor it needs periodic re-training. The only thing that a customer has to do is to plug in our system to a Apache Solr/Elasticsearch, and 904Labs Query Intent engine is built incrementally, one click/add-to-basket/purchase at a time. Oh, and it doesn’t write anything on your index. Magic!

Here’s a few interesting examples that came out from today’s experimentation:

(the examples are in Dutch; I try to translate the queries into English. Field attributes and values may be partially redacted for anonymity)

First some relatively simple cases:

  • Query: “lampen” (lamps) translates into Solr’s directive: “category:Lampen”
  • Query: “Tent” => “category:Tenten”. Note how the system has learned the mapping from singular to plural without using of manual synonyms.
  • Query: “Stoel kussens” (chair pillows) => “category:Kussens” (pillows). Here the system mapped a more specific query to a broader category due to the taxonomy structure; there was no leaf in the taxonomy for chair pillows. After pushing all types of pillow higher, pillows for chairs are pushed further up downstream in the learning to rank process.

Some more difficult cases:

  • Query: “Bed 160×200” => “size:160×200 cm” and “size:160 x 200 cm”. Note how the system has learned the discrepency in attribute values and suggests both; in the first one there are no spaces in the representation of the dimension, in the second one there are.
  • Query: “stoelen” (chairs) => “category:… en eetkamerstoelen” (kitchens and dining chairs). Here the system attempts to infer the intented category for a broad query such as “chairs”. Although there is a category labeled “chairs”, the system decides to suggest a particular leaf within the taxonomy branch of chairs.
  • Query: “tuinset” (garden set) => “number_of_persons:12”. The system implicitly defines the size and dimensions of the garden set from historical user behavior. Given the lack of a user profile, suggestions like this aim at capturing the interests of the average user of the shop.

And finally, two of my favorites, where the system attempts to infer several attributes of products from broad queries:

  • Query: “prieel” (garden house) => “material:XXX, color:Beige, weight:4.9 kg”. Here the system maps a broad query to distinct set of attributes, i.e., the material, the color, and even the weight of the garden house. Again, with no user profile provided, these suggestions attempt to capture the interests of the average user of the shop.
  • Query “eenpersoons bed” (one person bed) => “size:90 x 200 cm”. The system maps the query to exact dimensions for the bed!
  • Query: “XXX lounge” (brand redacted) => “model:White XXX”. Here the system manages to map a brand and type of products from this brand to a specific product model from this brand. Again, without user profiling. Quite impressive!

I hope you also find exciting what the new version of 904Labs Query Intent/Understanding engine can do. You can have this technology working for you too and straight away, by getting in touch with us. Plus, unlike other search engine providers, you keep your index, and we don’t touch it so we don’t lock you in. The first month is for free, terminable monthly. Get in touch!

What is a Query Intent/Understanding engine?

In the past year, at 904Labs A.I. for Search, we’ve put a lot of effort to optimize and push further the technology behind query intent/understanding engines. If you are in the search engine/information retrieval community, you know the term and how challenging the problem is. But if you are not familiar with the problem, it is hard to grasp its importance and challenges. Here’s my attempt to explain it in simple words.

A Query Intent/Understanding engine aims at identifying the intent of a user’s query and ultimately at translating it to a set of search directives.

Consider a user coming to your e-shop and typing in the search box: “red shoes”. The query may look pretty straightforward to you when it comes to what products to show to the user but, for a machine, it’s pretty hard to figure out what the person meant.

To get into the machine’s shoes (pun intended) think for a moment that you were born and raised in a warehouse, which is isolated from the rest of the world but has all the inventory of an e-shop. You’ve never left the warehouse so you don’t know anything about the world. It’s quite grim world but bare with me. One day someone slips a message under the door of the warehouse with the words “red shoes”. Now your task is to select a set of products that satisfy/cover that person’s information need. Obviously you know nothing about that mysterious person, let alone their preferences, and you barely understand the language of the message–perhaps you are able to recognize characters and words and match them to words found on the labels of products, but that’s pretty much it.

In such a surreal world, you can imagine that it is quite difficult, even for you, a human, to select a set of products that relate to “red shoes”. The challenge lies in that much of the important, contextual, information that we have access to from our constant interactions with the real world by living in it, it is very much missing in this artificial setting: We don’t know whether the user is a he or a she (and therefore we don’t know if we should pick male or female type of shoes), we don’t know what is the “hot” color of the season, nor the most popular brand, nor whether the person is looking for sneakers or boots or high-heels. There are  lots of unknowns.

A Query Intent/Understanding engine is an algorithm that tries to make sense of the world for machines, or other entities, which are locked up in a similar warehouse as the one we described above and have no access to contextual information. A Query Intent/Understanding algorithm aims at mapping free text (a user query) to a series of directives (rules) that when applied, they will yield a useful set of products for the user.  In our “red shoes” example, we are looking for directives that look as the following: “filter on products that have attribute:red and category:shoes”. At a first glance, the mapping looks simple but as of now you’ve seen from our warehouse setting that it can be quite daunting.

Researchers and practitioners have been working on this problem for quite some time and progress has been made; however the community has still some way to go before solving it. At the core of current solutions, there is a lot of complex technology such as neural networks that power NLP (Natural Language Processing) tools and other pipelines that require lots of human annotations (read expensive). These approaches yield relatively good accuracy, however, putting these systems into production may still be a challenging engineering problem–from setting up the data pipelining to scaling up, to retraining, and to monitoring system effectiveness and efficiency.

At 904Labs we’ve developed a Query Intent/Understanding engine that hooks up on an e-shop’s data, bootstraps a knowledge graph, and it learns the mapping to directives automatically, i.e.,  without supervision (read without human annotations). It doesn’t require retraining nor external dependencies, and you can use it straight away, today, on your own Apache Solr or Elasticsearch index (from which we only read and never write and we never lock you in). If that sounds appealing, get in touch for a one month free trial!

Another historical moment for 904Labs

I’m very happy to share news on the latest success of 904Labs A.I. for Search with our new customer, eci.nl.

eci is one of the largest online book specialists in the Netherlands and Belgium, with an estimated yearly revenue of 15m euro for the Dutch part. For their site search, eci relied on a manually optimized Apache Solr, integrated into Intershop.

During a three-week A/B test we’ve shown a 38% improvement in revenue and a 34% increase in conversion rate compared to the in-house Apache Solr search engine. This shows once more that adding A.I. to your search engine really makes a difference! Read the full story here.

Keynote speech at AI2Future

AI2Future is a local, Croatian, initiative for disseminating the importance and for grounding the use of Artificial Intelligence. The conference brings together researchers, A.I. start ups, and large corporates from all around Croatia to share experiences and learn from each other on what A.I. can and cannot do.

I was invited to give one of the two keynote talks. The first keynote focused on conversational agents and natural language processing and mine followed up with insights how search powers a large spectrum of applications from search, question and answering, and recommendations. I focused on the work we do at 904Labs and illustrated the principles of online learning to rank through real-world examples from our experimences with our customers.

I got many questions after the talk which is a sign that the audience understood the topic and was intrigued by what A.I. can do for search. Some of the questions were brought to the following breaks with some of them leading to follow up meetings in the next days.

I much enjoyed the conference, and I hope that the organizers will follow up with another version next year. I believe that we do need more of this type of initiative to disseminate what A.I. is and A.I. can and cannot do so that organizations shape a better picture of how they can use it to solve challenges that they face.

A historical moment for 904Labs

I’m happy to share some great results with regards to the utility of self-learning search and revenue on e-commerce sites. 904Labs self-learning search improves revenue by 36% when compared to a highly, but manually, tuned Apache Solr search engine. Good job 904Labs team!

Read the full blog post at 904Labs, here: https://www.904labs.com/en/self-learning-search-improves-revenue-for-e-commerce

DIR 2016

The Dutch-Belgian Information Retrieval Workshop was held this year in Delft. A nice lot of people from all around the Netherlands, Belgium, and a handful from abroad came together to share their research highlights from this year. It was a nice programme, filled with interesting short talks (about 15mins) that were great to give us a summary of what everybody is working on.

My personal highlight was Chato’s keynote speech on algorithmic bias. Although a lot is discussed on the topic, there is yet no to little work that presents some sort of foundation that describes the issue, frames it and offers some theoretical framework from which we can start thinking about solutions. Chato’s work laid the ground works on this area. He started with explaining what algorithmic bias is and stressed how coupled it is with data collection. I’m looking forward to seeing more on his work on the subject.

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“Detecting Algorithmic Discrimination” by Carlos Castillo, presented at DIR 2016. Delft, the Netherlands.

SIGIR 2016

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“Building a Self-Learning Search Engine: From Research to Business” presented at SIGIR 2016 Industry Track. Pisa, Italy.

This summer I was happy to be back at the Special Interest Group in Information Retrieval (SIGIR), this time, in Pisa, Italy. Last time I was at SIGIR was in Portland back in 2012, where I was presenting the work I did at Yahoo! Barcelona. SIGIR is the top international conference on search engines, and it’s always good fun to hear the latest developments and exchange new ideas.

This year I talked at the industry track where I shared my experiences from running a search startup in the Netherlands. I received positive feedback, and it was good to catch up with old friends and meet new people. If you want a short recap from the latest and greatest trends in search technology, read on my summary on 904Labs blog.