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July 23, 2012

Want search 'just like Google'?

This weekend I read a post by John Hefferman on Seth Earley's blog, which was related to a discussion going at the LinkedIn Enterprise Search Engine Professionals group. The similarity may not jump right out at you, but let me try to piece together the logic in my brain that makes them one in the same.

If asked, most enterprise search users will tell you they want search "just like Google'. In fact web search is different than enterprise search - but it is possible to deliver a somewhat psychic 'Google-like' experience in the enterprise. It takes time, effort, and understanding of what people mean by "just like Google". And yes, these are often hard to come by. (If you have a few minutes, see our recent webinar from earlier this year  "What enterprise users want from search".)

The LinkedIn discussion was started by Phil Lloyd of Standard Life in the UK where he asked about the effort required to keep an enterprise search system running reasonably well (in fact, he asked what the minimum effort to implement FAST Search for SharePoint; but the discussion quickly became one of ongoing effort). 

The answer, as valid for FAST as it is for any enterprise product is, of course "it depends". 

You've just spend a large sum to license the platform. If you want it to work well, you'll staff it to run well and provide a return on the investment. If you don't care how well it works, it can be arbitrarily inexpensive. Heck, if it doesn't need to work well, you may never need to touch it again. After a few years, a new VP will be willing to toss it out and spend a large sum on a new and improved platform. Of course, without attention, it, too, will be doomed to failure. 

How does this relate to the Google article? One reason Google on the public web is so good is that it has a huge data set to work with. But - and this is what most enterprise search owners don't get - Google also has armies of engineers and bots looking at search activity every day... in fact, perhaps even every second or two, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, worldwide.

When you search Google for your FedEx tracking number, do you think that is in the search index? When Google recognizes a 12 digit number that matches the algorithm for FedEx tracking codes, it bypasses the search index and offers to link the user to FedEx. Did you know that if you change a single digit in that code there's an excellent chance you'll get a rare 'no hits' from Google?

How did they know this? Well, by noting a bunch of odd 12 digit numbers as searches... all with no hits and almost every one unique - some bot noticed that the subsequent search was for FedEx, and alerted a human engineer to answer the riddle and take action. In this case, the action was likely to contact FedEx to understand it's algorithm in order to recognize a valid tracking code - and to insert logic ahead of the actual search to suggest a specific page on the FedEx site - the one that tracks that package. 

If you want search that works just like Google, you need to invest some time. Maybe it's an average of one or two FTEs each year; maybe it's less. One thing is certain; when you first roll out search, it will take more effort than when it's been running for a year. But of you let search roll out and never look at it again - well, then you've managed to out in the minimum effort for search. And you've probably doomed your company to buying a new platform out of frustration in a few years. The choice is yours.


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All the points are well made.

Just last year I was reflecting on this "choice" to make search work really well..."In the enterprise, the same care must be given to metadata, search engine “meaning” analysis tools and query interpretation for successful outcomes. Magic does not happen without people behind the scenes to meet these three criteria executing linguistic curation, content enhancement and computational linguistic programming." http://bluebillinc.com/author/lynda-moulton/.

The smart money is on those who take our guidance seriously.

// Thanks Lynda, I appreciate your comments here! //

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