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February 20, 2018

Search, the Enterprise Orphan

It seems that everywhere I go, I hear how bad enterprise search is. Users, IT staff, and management complain, and eventually organizations decide that replacing their existing vendor is the best solution. I’d wager that companies switch their search platforms more frequently than any other mission-critical application

While the situation is frustrating for organizations that use search, the current state isn’t as bad for the actual search vendors: if prospects are universally unhappy with a competing product, it’s easier to sell a replacement technology that promises to be everything the current platform is not. It may seem that the only loser is the current vendor; and they are often too busy converting new customers to the platform to worry much.

But in fact, switching search vendors every few years is a real problem for the organization that simply wants its employees and users to find the right content accurately, quickly and without any significant user training. After all, employees are born with the ability to use Google!

 

Higher level story

Why is enterprise search so bad? In my experience, search implemented and managed properly is pretty darned good. As I see it, the problem is that at most organizations, search doesn’t have an owner.  On LinkedIn, a recent search for “vice president database” jobs shows over 1500 results. Searching for “vice president enterprise search”? Zero hits.

This means that search, recognized as mission-critical by senior management, often doesn’t have an owner outside of IT, whose objective is to keep enterprise applications up and running. Search may be one of the few enterprise applications where “up and running” is just not good enough.

Sadly, there is often no “search owner”; no “search quality team”; and likely no budget for measuring and maintaining result quality.

Search Data Quality

We’ve all heard the expression “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. What is data quality when it comes to search? And how can you measure it?

Ironically, enterprise content authors have an easy way to impact search data quality; but few use it. The trick? Document Properties – also known as ‘metadata’.

When you create any document, there is always data about the document – metadata. Some of the metadata ‘just happens’: the file date, its size, and the file name and path. Other metadata depends on the author-provided properties like a title, subject, and other fielded data like that maintained in the Office ‘Properties’ tab. And there are tools like the Stanford Named Entity Recognition tool (licensed under the GNU General Public License) that can perform advanced metadata extraction from the full text of a document

Some document properties happen automatically. In Microsoft Office, for example, the Properties form provides a way to define field values including the author name, company and other fields. The problem is, few people go to the effort of filling the property fields correctly, so you end up for bad metadata. And bad data is arguably worse than no metadata.

On the enterprise side, I heard about an organization that wanted to reward employees who authored popular content for the intranet. The theory was that recognizing and rewarding useful content creation would help improve the overall quality and utility of the corporate intranet.

An organization we did a project for a few years ago were curious about poor metadata in their intranet document repository, so they did a test. After some testing of their Microsoft Office documents, , they discovered that one employee had authored nearly half of all their intranet content! It turned out that one employee, an Office Assistant, had authored the document that everyone in the origination used as the starting point for a of their common standard reports.

Solving the Problem

Enterprise search technology has advanced to an amazing level. A number of search vendors have even integrated machine learning tools like Spark to surface popular content for frequent queries. And search-related reporting has become a standard part of nearly all search product offerings, so metrics such as top queries and zero hits are available and increasingly actionable.

To really take advantage of these new technological solution, you need to have a team of folks to actively participate in making your enterprise search a success so you can break the loop of “buy-replace”.

Start by identifying an executive owner, and then pull together a team of co-conspirators who can help. Sometimes just by looking at the reports you have and taking action can go a long way.

Review the queries with no results and see if there are synonyms that can find the right content without even changing the content.  Identify the right page for your most popular queries and define one or two “best bets’. If you find that some frequent queries don’t really have relevant content? Work with your web team to create appropriate content.

Funding? Find the right person in your organization to convince that spending a little money on fixing the problems now will break the “buy-replace’ problem and save some significant but needlessly recurring expenses.

Like so many things, a little ongoing effort can solve the problem.

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