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March 27, 2007

The Fallacy of Single-Shot Relevancy

One of the problems that has plagued corporate search for so long is the assumption that a user simply needs to enter a query and the search technology will automagically return the best answers.

It isn't really the corporations' fault - the search vendors have been making this pitch for years. And to make things worse, Google and Yahoo and other web search engines make it look so simple. What most users don't realize is that these internet search services have it easy: there are perhaps tens of thousands of sites that cover most subjects, and no one notices if a few thousand documents are missing from the result list. In the corporate world, you only have one page that contains your CEO's bio, and if that page doesn't come back at the top of a search, you know someone is going to be unhappy.

For a while, companies and vendors tried to push "Advanced Search" as the solution. The logic was "if a user really wants the answer, s/he can drill down into the advanced page". Nope. Wrong again. Some of our customers who survey their web site users report that fewer than 3% of all searches come from the advanced search page. Yet a large percentage of users report they are dissatisfied with their search results. Clearly, this is a failed strategy as well.

We need to find a way to engage the user in a conversation to learn what they are really looking for.

What's the solution?

We think the answer lays with what we have been calling Enterprise Search 2.0 or ES2.0.

One of the primary mantras of ES2.0 is context. The good news is that inside of the corporation, we have context the public search engines can only dream about.

We know about the user. What department is he in? What accounts does she manage? What other projects has he worked on? What is her job title?

We know about the data. When was it created? What format is it stored in? What security applies?

And finally, we know about the search: what language is it in? What do any special acronyms mean? Does it look like the name of an employee or of a current project?

Given the context, our search query tuning makes a guess at what the user wants; and displays the results. It also provides related links, spelling suggestions, and perhaps a suggested page or best bet. But ES2.0 engines also display other related links and contexts in the form of dynamic navigators. These dynamic links, typically to the left of the search results, provide other contexts that may apply for the given query and are generated dynamically for each query. The navigators may show a link to a bio page if the query matches an employee name; and a reasonable number of related items: projects, locations, accounts.

Even the most focused of users will browse the navigators for related context - in fact, they are providing a way to encourage the user to provide additional context about the search, without resorting to the advanced search page.

ES2.0 isn't about mind reading. It's not the 'HAL 9000' functionality we may someday have. But it is a way for corporations to begin improving enterprise search to improve the productivity of its employees.

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