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Unlocking Verity's Potential

Unlocking Verity's Potential

Since version 2.0, ColdFusion's freely bundled Verity search engine remains one of the most powerful yet seldom exploited components of the ColdFusion server. The Verity Search'97 indexing technology incorporated into ColdFusion Server provides a means for creating collections of indexed data optimized for fast retrieval, adding enormous value to any Web site big or small.

This article demonstrates the basics of setting up a Verity search collection and how to encompass all your data – static and dynamic – into one intelligent indexing solution. In addition, it shows how to display summaries without the need for preexisting META tags, highlight keywords (users love this) and build searches within searches, and the advantages of using Verity over CFQUERY.

The Basics
The Verity engine performs searches against collections. A collection is a special database created by Verity that contains pointers to the indexed data that you specify for that collection. ColdFusion's Verity implementation supports collections of three basic data types:

  1. Text files such as HTML pages and CFML templates

  2. Binary document types such as PDF and DOC (see Figure 1 for a list of all supported file types)

  3. Result sets returned from CFQUERY, CFLDAP and CFPOP queries
To use Verity searching and indexing technology:
  • Create a Verity collection using the ColdFusion Administrator Verity page or the CFCOLLECTION tag at runtime (see Figure 2). You must name the collection now regardless of what you're indexing.
  • Populate a collection with data using options on the ColdFusion Administrator Verity page to index specific directories (usually for static or binary pages) or the CFINDEX tag at runtime (usually for dynamic data, but can also be used for static pages or building custom Verity admin templates).

  • Build search forms and indexing capability into your applications using the CFINDEX and CFSEARCH tags.

Use the guidelines in Table 1 to determine which indexing method is best for you.

Populating a Collection Using CFINDEX
Using the Administrator to create a collection of static documents is fairly straightforward. Simply specify a directory path, whether to index subdirectories, what file extensions to index (good for filtering), foreign language (if any) and, optionally, a return URL to prepend to all indexed files.

However, since most of you will likely need to index database content, follow these steps:

  1. Create the collection name on the ColdFusion Administrator Verity page; at this point it's an empty container standing by for you to input data.
  2. Create a CFM template that executes any query.
  3. Populate the collection with data from that query using the CFINDEX tag.
  4. (Optional) Schedule a task in the Administrator that runs your indexing template nightly to keep your collections up to date.
The code below is all you need to populate a collection you named MsgIndex (following Step 1 above) from a database of threaded discussion messages:
<!--- Select the entire table --->
<CFQUERY NAME="Messages" DATASOURCE="Threads">
SELECT * FROM Messages
</CFQUERY>

<!--- Index the results --->
<CFINDEX COLLECTION="MsgIndex"
ACTION="UPDATE"
TYPE="CUSTOM"
BODY="MessageText"
KEY="Message_ID"
TITLE="Subject"
QUERY="Messages">

The table column(s) specified in the BODY attribute are what Verity actually compares search criteria against. It may contain multiple columns separated by commas, like this:

BODY="MessageText,Title,Company"
The ACTION="UPDATE" attribute ap-pends data to your collection if the KEY doesn't already exist. The collection's KEY is similar to the primary key in a database. Using ACTION="REFRESH" would purge, then overwrite, all data in your collection. REFRESH takes more time, but it's necessary if your rows were being updated as well as added to (e.g., if users were able to edit their messages).

Advantages of Indexing a Data Source
The main advantage of performing searches against a Verity collection instead of using CFQUERY alone is that results are ordered by relevance; the database is indexed in a form that provides faster access; and Verity offers more intelligent search capabilities. For example, Verity can find common words, both plural and singular (this is called stemming). Verity also allows users to apply Boolean logic (AND/OR/NEAR-type operators), which is impossible with CFQUERY. As a general rule use Verity instead of CFQUERY when you want:

  • Results returned by order of relevance (Verity offers scoring variables)
  • To index textual data; Verity collections containing textual data can be searched more efficiently with CFINDEX than a database can with CFQUERY
  • To give users access to data without interacting directly with the data source itself
  • To enable users to search more intelligently by applying Boolean logic, proximity searches and/or stemming
Indexing Static and Dynamic Content Together
Using CFINDEX (or via the Administrator), you may populate a collection with static pages by specifying a directory tree. Then, using CFINDEX, update the collection with query data as in the example above. You may continue to update the collection with new queries or static data at any time. In theory, a single collection could contain as much of your static and dynamic data together as you like. However, you may not process multiple queries on a single collection at the same time.

A tricky situation develops, however, when you try to output combined data from more than one table since the collection's KEY value will (usually) contain numeric IDs and not know which of your tables the ID belongs to. For example, if you index two tables – Messages and Users – in the same collection and use the primary ID as the key, then ID=50 could reference either one. Therefore, when adding data from multiple database tables to the same collection, use the CUSTOM1 and/or CUSTOM2 variable of CFINDEX to hold a description that you create. Then write conditional code so when the custom attribute is recalled, the code points the ID to the correct table variable (see Listing 1; listings for this article are on page 16).

Displaying Search Results
Once a collection has been populated via the Administrator or via CFINDEX, create a form that passes a query parameter into the CFSEARCH tag. CFSEARCH is similar to CFQUERY in that it returns records or rows of data from a collection just as CFQUERY returns rows from a database (see Listing 1).

You can pass criteria simultaneously to multiple collections by specifying a comma-delimited list of collections. Relevancy is applied to the group as a whole:

<!--- Passing criteria --->
<CFSEARCH NAME="search"
COLLECTION="a,b,c,d"
TYPE="simple"
CRITERIA="#Keyword#">
Or consider grouping your output by individual collection.

In the CFSEARCH CRITERIA attribute, if you pass a mixed-case entry (mixed upper- and lowercase), case sensitivity is applied to the search. If you pass all upper- or all lowercase, case insensitivity is assumed.

Every search conducted with the CFSEARCH tag returns, as part of the record set, a number of result attribute variables you can reference in your CFOUTPUT:

  • URL: Returns the value of the URLPATH attribute defined in the CFINDEX tag that's used to populate the collection. This value is always empty when you populate the collection with CFINDEX when TYPE="Custom".
  • KEY: Returns the value of the KEY attribute defined in the CFINDEX tag that's used to populate the collection. It can be any value you choose, usually ID when indexing a database.
  • TITLE: Returns whatever was placed in the TITLE attribute in the CFINDEX operation used to populate the collection, including the titles of PDF and Office documents. If a title wasn't provided in the TITLE attribute, CFSEARCH returns CF_TITLE.
  • SCORE: Returns the relevancy score of the document based on the search criteria.
  • CUSTOM1 and CUSTOM2: Returns whatever was placed in the custom fields in the CFINDEX operation used to populate the collection (crucial when indexing multiple databases or a database with the fields you wish to display).
  • SUMMARY: Returns the contents of the automatic summary generated by CFINDEX. The default summarization selects the three best matching sentences, up to a maximum of 500 characters.
  • RECORDCOUNT: Returns the number of records returned in the record set.
  • CURRENTROW: Returns the current row being processed by CFOUTPUT.
  • COLUMNLIST: Returns the list of the column names within the record set.
  • RECORDSSEARCHED: Returns the number of records searched.

Use these attribute variables in standard CFML expressions by preceding the variable with the name of the query:

#search.URL#
#search.TITLE#
#search.SUMMARY#
#search.SCORE#
etc...
The SUMMARY attribute is probably one of the most powerful and useful attributes of Verity. This solution is perfect if you're wondering how to display useful summaries from static or dynamic pages without META tags or other meaningful abstracts built into your database content. You can always trim the summary to fewer than 500 characters by using the MID function. For instance, if you wanted to display only 100 characters, use:
Mid(#search.summary#, 1, 100)...
In case you're wondering, there's a file under every collection called style.prm located under the Cfusion\Verity\Collections\whatever\custom\style folder. It can be opened with any ASCII editor and contains collection schema parameters. This file is used to enable/disable index schema features through macro definitions similar to those allowed by the C preprocessor. Different levels of document summarization can be uncommented in the style.prm file:
  • (Default) stores the three best sentences of the document, but not more than 500 bytes
  • Stores the first four sentences of the document, but not more than 500 bytes
  • Stores the first 150 bytes of the document with white space compressed
Combining Verity and CFQUERY
A powerful way to use Verity is to take search results (from a query-populated collection) and recycle them back into a CFQUERY statement. You may want to do this to output the other fields of your table that Verity didn't index. When you populate query-driven Verity collections, specify a KEY attribute. Most of the time the KEY is the primary ID of the table. Therefore, the #search.KEY# results can be cycled into CFQUERY like this:
<!--- Passing criteria --->
<CFSEARCH NAME="search"
COLLECTION="MsgIndex"
TYPE="simple"
CRITERIA="#Keyword#">

<!--- query from search --->
<CFOUTPUT QUERY="search">
<CFQUERY NAME="query1"
DATASOURCE="threads">
SELECT * FROM Messages
WHERE id = #search.key#
</CFQUERY>
#var1# #var2# #var3# ...
</CFOUTPUT>

Instead of being passed one at a time, the KEYs can also be passed in a ValueList like this:
WHERE id IN (#ValueList(search.key)#)
which would then allow you to GROUP and ORDER BY the results. Note: If you start grouping and ordering output from the same collection, you're logically removing the relevancy – one of the primary reasons for using Verity.

Filtering Data
Unfortunately, ColdFusion's Verity administrator doesn't make it easy to filter out directories and files you don't want indexed. For a legacy Web site this can be a major challenge as the site's developer(s) may have kept public and private files (admin, stats, CF docs, etc.) under the same root.

One solution is to move directories and files off the root and into virtual directories. Just make sure you have any redirects set up if necessary, which can be a pain.

The other option is to delete collection records after you've indexed everything. This issue is addressed in the sidebar that contains excerpts from the Allaire Knowledge Base article #1080.

Searches Within Searches
If a search result set returns enough records – let's say over 50 – users will usually appreciate a way to search them. Listing 2 demonstrates a simple way of doing this by populating a new Verity collection on the fly. Basically, you would:

  1. Create a new collection in the Administrator for holding temporary data called tempCollection.
  2. Output the KEY in a hidden form field after each primary result returned.
  3. When the user hits a button to perform a secondary search, pass those hidden fields to another query that passes the query results into a CFINDEX tag with the ACTION="Refresh" and COLLECTION="tempCollection". This will now populate the collection in Step 1 on the fly.
  4. Output the secondary search keyword into a CFSEARCH tag that's connected to the freshly populated collection from Step 3.
Understandably, this process can be somewhat system intensive if repeated over and over and large result sets are being passed. Therefore, it's a good idea to specify a maximum record set that, when reached, asks the user to perform another primary search. This on-the-fly secondary search process can be repeated down to the third level, fourth level, and so on. You can keep recycling the IDs in hidden fields.

Highlighting Keywords
This works particularly well on the SUMMARY output for either static or dynamic records. Basically, you build a regular expression that replaces any instance of the query keyword with a new highlighted instance. In the example below:

Step 1: Establish a stylesheet in the document HEAD to display the font with a yellow background:

<STYLE TYPE="text/css">
font.hl {background-color: yellow}
</STYLE>
Step 2: Set your new output field to newSummary.

Step 3: Use Replace to replace the keyword in the current summary field with your highlighted version:

<CFSET newSummary = #Replace(#search.summary#, "#keyword#", "<font class=hl><b>#keyword#</b></font>", "All")#>
To take this one step further, pass the keyword variable into the URL so when users click through, the following page will also have its query text highlighted. For query-driven data it's a matter of replacing the text for your output field. For static pages you may need to read in the page via CFHTTP so you can manipulate the text as you read it back via #CFHTTP.FileContent#.

Performance Considerations
Always optimize your collections, either via the Administrator or, preferably, immediately after using CFINDEX:

<!--- Index the collection --->
<CFINDEX COLLECTION="MsgIndex"
ACTION="UPDATE"
TYPE="CUSTOM"
BODY="MessageText"
KEY="Message_ID"
TITLE="Subject"
QUERY="Messages">

<!--- Then optimize ---> <CFCOLLECTION COLLECTION="MsgIndex" action="OPTIMIZE">

Optimizing collections will significantly increase the performance of keyword searches on your site. On larger collections (e.g., 3,000-plus records) the difference can be up to seconds. Check by turning on debugging for your site to show processing time before and after optimizing.

RAM use is another consideration. From Allaire Knowledge Base Article #3690, Verity support states that "the memory requirement for a small installation using IIS (small being about 20 queries per minute and fetching HTML documents) is 64 Megs." If you plan on running lots of Verity-driven searches, plan on the extra RAM consumption.

Conclusion
While other search engine technology exists, such as Infoseek's Ultraseek Server (expensive), Netscape Server's built-in engine or freeware Perl scripts, ColdFusion's freely bundled Verity search technology will be as easy to understand and seamless to implement as the rest of your ColdFusion applications. Remember to optimize your collections and be aware of RAM. There's good system documentation but not a lot of support in the forums. Like most things CF, you can be up and running with Verity in seconds. It's powerful and flexible, and, when properly implemented, your Web site users will praise you for making their life easier.

More Stories By David C. Smith

David C. Smith is the Webmaster and manager of Internet development for the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) in Arlington, Virginia, and the lead developer behind TIA's new B2B portal, GetCommStuff.com.

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