Structured search (noun) was rooted firmly in the enterprise when publishers of print index resources (e.g. Chemical Abstracts, Index Medicus from the National Library of Medicine, GRA&I from the National Technical Information Service) became available on-line in the early 1970s. The Systems Development Corporation launched ORBIT developed by a team lead by Carlos Cuadra. Orbit was a command driven search tool accessible to professional searchers. In those days searchers were usually special librarians in corporations, large public libraries, government agencies and major universities. Using the ORBIT command language through a terminal connected by a phone line to remote large computers, librarians would type search commands to find data in specific structured fields. These remote computers held electronic versions of paper indices. Citations resulting from a query for specific chemical compounds, diseases, or government reports, would contain information needed to retrieve articles, patents or books from library shelves.

Corporations spent hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to access external specialized, and structured indices, and the journals, conference proceeding, patents and government documents to which the indices pointed. Hard copy (paper or microform) was the only practical way to read content. Computer screens were not accessible to most researchers and even if they had been, content could not be rendered on them in easily readable forms. Also, until computer storage technologies became cheap, indexing large amounts of text (full-text, or unstructured content) was not affordable.

Even with the advent of graphical interfaces, searching for non-specialists made only minor advances in the early-1980s when library systems offered index browsing to find citations. Library users still needed to read content in hard copy. It was only in the late 1980s and early 90s that full-text content began to be searchable by large numbers of library users on CD-ROMs. Users would go to a library computer, which held multiple CD-ROMs containing journals and other subscriptions, and use a menu to find content on the CD-ROMs by typing keywords that would look through all the content to find matches. This was the first routine use of full-text searching by library users.

These technologies are just memories for a few of us, and unknown to most, but they do point to the differentiation between structured and unstructured searching. Both have been around for a couple of decades but it has taken Web search engines to put search in the hands of everyone. Only recently is frustration with retrieving buckets of unfiltered content pushing enterprises to reconfirm the added value of structured searching.

Technical and business users are appreciating the value of being able to search for a precise title, all documents contributed to a specific project, or all presentations delivered by the CEO in the past two years. Each of these searches requires a defined set of data points, stored with the content and retrievable with a search interface that can support the “structured” query.

Yes, librarians have been here before but, just now, the rest of the organization is learning how they managed to get such good search results all along. Structured searching is now a lot simpler than it was in the 1970s. It is only one aspect in enterprise search but it is an important requirement for most enterprise users when they need reliable and clearly defined search results. And, by the way, Carlos is still around building systems for enterprises to manage and search their critical proprietary content.