Which search is best?
Ask that question to a number of knowledgeable enterprise search consultants, and you’ll no doubt hear a number of answers including Attivio, Elasticsearch, Google, Lucene, Lucidworks, SharePoint, Solr and many others. All are well known, and include rich capabilities and strong technology underpinnings. And the experts you spoke with will have answered honestly.
What you would experience is not unlike the parable about six blind men describing an elephant. In the John Godfrey Saxe telling of the tale, he says:
And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong...
So, now you may be wondering which search engine really is the right one for you.
The answer is really very easy: the one that meets your needs in your environment. But knowing that may be hard, because there is a good chance it’s been a while you really looked at your current environment.
I’d suggest you break down the process into a few distinct tasks in a process we call a Search Audit.
A search audit is very similar to the process we recommend our customers use when selecting a new search platform: you go through the same process and look at the same issues of environment, requirements and more.
Not unlike a financial audit, a search audit is an objective examination and evaluation of your enterprise search implementation. The objective is to review the important metrics to determine how well your search is performing; to identify potential weaknesses; and to come out of the audit with a plan to fix any issues found.
At a high level, the audit is a review of the current environment; repositories; access security; and user requirements. Let’s look at what each of these includes.
The operating system you use in an organization is often determined from ‘on high’. When considering a new search platform, it’s critical to verify support for operating systems you use; in an audit, you also need to confirm that your search platform is supported on the operating system version as well as on any anticipated updates.
Whether you use physical or virtual systems is a big item to review, as well as whether your search platform is software or an appliance. It also may matter whether your servers are on-prem, in the cloud, or a hybrid of both. For example, your security review may need more attention if you use a cloud or hybrid solution; and performance should be reviewed for virtual and remote servers.
Very few search platforms include every feature or capability you need. The solution may be as easy as scripting some common functions to customizing or modifying front-ends.
In the audit, pay attention to the platform and scripting languages, and make sure you have those skills in-house.
In your audit, you clearly are looking at indexing content; but it never hurts to review the repositories where your critical content lives. Confirm that any version updates have not impacted the search platform or its performance. And verify that any anticipated platform changes are supported by your search solution, and plan accordingly.
As with your repositories, an audit should confirm that any changes in the security infrastructure are mapped into, and supported by, the search platform. Are there new security levels or groups? Do queries against the repositories include content with the new security mappings?
Servers occasionally get major updates. Use the search audit as an opportunity to anticipate upcoming operating system changes in order to properly confirm compatibility with your existing system. A while back I spoke with a large company using Verity K2 – which has been obsolete for years. They were about to update their Windows NT servers to Server 2012 and wanted to know how they could port K2. Good thing they asked.
Your search platform exists to serve your customers, whether they are internal or external. Google and various eCommerce sites on the web have defined what users expect from search. Most enterprise search software ‘out of the box’ doesn’t look, feel, or work like Google; and you’ll have a problem if you don’t solve the expectations. Ironically, even the popular Google Search Appliance doesn’t generally work like Google.
If you do not already have one, create a search center of excellence, and recruit representative users to help define how your search works.
When it boils down to it just about any search engine can work ‘like Google', but that takes time and effort. If you haven’t already done so, use the audit as the driving force to improve the search experience.
Once you’ve completed your audit, you may find no major problems; and decide that your current search is doing pretty well. If that’s the case, you are in good shape. Other than ongoing maintenance, your task is complete for another year or two.
More often than not, issues come up in search audits. Sometimes it involves content not being indexed or poor search result quality. It may also be that the user experience is not “just like Google”.
The good news is that a majority of these issues can usually be fixed without replacing the platform.
What is the bad news? More often than not, people are so frustrated with search that a decree has come from on high calling to replace the search platform. This usually results in great effort, significant disruption and expense, and a new platform rollout with great flare and unrealistic expectations. But unless the issues you discover in an audit are addressed, there’s a good chance that you’ll be replacing the ‘new’ platform within a few years anyway.