May 03, 2021

Which enterprise search technology/technologies do you use?

I'm gathering data for a casual survey, and I'm like to share what I learn from you. I won't be releasing any names or organizations unless you send your email and your approval to me as an "Additional comments" I look forward form hearing from you!




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January 23, 2020

Search Comes First

Years ago, what we now call ‘enterprise search’ came with pretty basic fictionality. Product arrived with the ability to create an index; ‘filters’ to enable the indexing to work properly on non-text content like Word Perfect and WordStar; and an application that delivered a basic search experience, so inexperienced users could find the content they wanted. Rarely, advanced products included basic reporting, but everything was primarily focused on the indexing process, and very rarely on user query activity. Some companies – I’m thinking of organizations like Verity and Fulcrum Technologies (both former employers of mine) actually included some limited reporting, with the focus primarily on user queries.

Nowadays, technology has expanded everywhere. And with the popularity and success of the leading names in ‘internet search’ - Google, Bing, Yahoo, and others – more and more users have come to expect similar results in their corporate search capabilities for both internal and public-facing content. The catch is that the intranet is not the internet, and search is frequently an orphan product managed by an IT team short on time and often with little experience with search. I’ve summarized this problem before by confessing that search is not “fire and forget technology.

I’ve written about the challenges of enterprise search before: to summarize, enterprise queries generally have a ‘right answer’; document-level security, associated with many – if not a majority of documents; a variety of different file formats; and most importantly, someone whose job is to ensure content and search quality.

But we’ve seen a major enhancement in enterprise search lately, one that promises quantum leaps in search quality, precision, and personalization: machine learning or ML. And just to set the record straight, ML is not the same as ‘artificial intelligence’; technically, ML is an implementation of AI.

ML does not free you from managing your search platform. The “L” in ML is about learning, but sadly, the “M” is not for ‘magic’. As with we humans, machine learning happens by repetition and by observing behavior over time. And sadly, few enterprises have enough content and query activity quantity to be anywhere near as good as Google. And even though we are well into the 21st century, we don’t have the technology of the HAL 9000 computer – at least not yet. Come back next year!

What can you do to at least start seeing some benefits from ML technology we now see integrated with commercial and open-source search technologies? Regardless of what advanced technologies you use, you still have to pay attention to the basics. I’ve written about much all of these in the past, but they all deserve repeating. As one of my teachers in college used to say, "I ask you to put a hand over one of your ears because what I’m about to say is too important to go in one ear and out the other". Good old Coach Gollnick.

First, make it a habit to watch your search platform. Most likely, your IT folks have tools that track behavior of critical software – yes, search is critical, even if you’re not using it for eCommerce. Talk to those folks, have them set up monitoring of search: if possible, have them track queries, presented results, viewed content, and most importantly, ‘no hits’. If a user performs a search, presumably he or she expects to see content relevant to the query; and if you have no content, either your user is looking for content you don’t have, or your content is not tagged properly. When in doubt, ask your users to confirm what he or she was looking for.

What Metrics to Track

Most search technologies now offer at least some metrics; what you’d ideally have includes these basic statistics:

Top Queries: Simply, what are the most common queries users submit. You want to understand queries across departments; for example, Marketing will have different interests and queries than Sales or IT staff. Understanding queries provides the metrics the search team needs to keep content relevant.

No Hits: When users perform a search – especially a relevant search term - and find nothing, they become frustrated. Tracking these queries provides critical information to the teams that create and manage content; and addressing what are often misspellings or incorrect terms leads to happier end users.

Rare terms frequently seen in queries: This is a very interesting metric, since it provides knowledge on content users are looking for, but for which there may not be much content.

Additional Must-Do Tasks

What about content that is common throughout your content and indices, but where you can identify and promote the ‘right answer’. Sometimes, this means talking to folks in other departments who may have better understanding of the query intent. One thing we’ve seen that has often proved worthwhile is to form a ‘Enterprise Search Team’ or a “Search Center of Excellence’. These groups, made up with users from across the organization and all levels of the company from individual contributors to senior management, meet periodically – quarterly seems to be the most common frequency - to discuss users’ feedback on search platform

In addition to the above reporting, there are a few more things to track. It’s a good idea to track queries by department: often we’ve seen instances where one or two departments utilize search thoroughly, while others use it rarely. Talk to folks in those departments to understand a users’ intent; and if you are missing content, address the problem. Keep an eye out for rare but potentially critical queries; believe it or not, they can be important.

One extreme, but hopefully rare case: sensitive terms. A query for ‘sexual harassment policy” is a symptom of potentially legal vulnerabilities; and if that query occurs, it should escalate to HR. I’m certainly not an expert in the law, but I’ve been told that, in cases where companies should have known there were issues, there may be liability. Talk to HR (and perhaps Corporate Legal); Investigate the issue, and address the problem. And, as a potential bonus, to fend lawsuits.

Search is not ‘fire and forget’ technology, and it takes time and resources to maintain high-quality user satisfaction.  The squeaky wheel may get the grease; but constant improvement will help address any dissatisfaction and that’s always a good deal.

A Final Word

A lack of feedback from users is not always a good thing: combined with unexpectedly low query activity, it could be that your users have given up on search. Communicate with your users, gather their input, and communicate.

January 14, 2020

Conversational Search

The magic in early instances of what we now call 'enterprise search' was being able to find content by typing in a few keywords. It wasn't as cool as the HAL 9000 computer featured in "2001 - A Space Odyssey", but it was good enough to draw a large number of people - myself included - into the business.

Along the way, Google perfected a search platform based on the theory that, at scale, just about any query you could think of had already been used by thousands, if not millions. of other humans. All Google needed to do is keep track of what pages other humans viewed following a query and promoting the page to the top. Essentially, they created a 'crowd-sourced search'. 

The bad news for those of us who work on search designed for use within the enterprise is that there just isn't sufficient content - or query activity - to deliver results as accurate as those we experience on the public web. Consider: Google marketed the Google Search Appliance for the enterprise. It didn't deliver the kinds of results public-facing Google does, and Google pulled the product from the market. For great search, size matters.

Nonetheless, some of the companies that market enterprise search products are now adding elements of machine learning with their products; and while perhaps not as accurate as web-based Google, they do deliver results that start out pretty well and get better with age, as the platforms learn what documents humans view following queries.

And if you've not noticed, some leading vendors are now integrating - and encouraging - what is known as 'conversational search'. Think about it: when you need to find a document in your organization, you may ask a colleague. But you don't simply say "sales'. Chances are you'll ask "where is the new sales report".

It's encouraging to see an increasing number of vendors delivering these capabilities in their commercial products.  The most recent to announce conversational search is Algolia, although I have to say I'm quite disappointed in the Wikipedia write-up on them. In my spare time, should I ever find any,  I should go do some edits, but this 'spare time' thing is rare for me.

Nonetheless, I'm happy to see an increasing number of commercial search vendors beginning to integrate these advanced capabilities into their products. Search in the enterprise has challenges: but hang in there: it's getting better! 

Note: How has your experience been with machine learning and AI integrated with your enterprise search? I'd love to hear your experiences - even if under NDA!


January 06, 2020

It's a new year: Time for better metadata!

The new year is a time when most of us resolve to make changes in our personal lives: losing weight, exercising more, spending more time with a spouse and/or the kids. We start the year with great energy to meet our goals, but sadly many of us fall short through the year.

This often happens in the enterprise as well. Improving internal search is a common resolution at the time of the year. For eCommerce sites, January generally means fewer site visitors once the holiday rush is done; so making changes won’t have a great impact on sales. For corporations, it’s a time of new budgets and great expectations: and more than a few of the clients I’ve we’ve worked with over the years tell me how poorly their internal search performs compared to the public search sites like Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo. Why do these search platforms work so well? And why can’t your site search match their success? It’s a numbers game. By definition, public search platforms index millions of sites; and many of these contain similar if not identical content. This makes is easy to find what you’re looking for because thousands of sites have relevant results for just about any query you may try.

Intranet sites are different, Usually, there is only one page with the information you are looking for. But often, content authors, who have read about how to promote consent on Google, will add keywords using Microsoft Word’s “Properties” field in an effort to promote their documents. This attempt to ‘game’ the internal search platform generally interferes with the platform’s relevance functions and results in poor result relevance. Even the Document Properties the Microsoft Word provides can interfere with search effectiveness.

Years ago, we were working with a client who was interested in knowing which employees were contributing to the intranet content. When the data was processed, it turned out that an Administrative Assistant in Marketing had authored more documents than anyone else in the corporation. After a quick review, we discovered why this one person was apparently more prolific than any other employee. That person had created all of the template forms used throughout the company, so the Word Document Properties listed that employee’s name as the author of virtually every standard template throughout the company.

So in the spirit of the new year, I’d suggest that you spend a day or two performing a data audit to discover where your content – or lack thereof – is negatively impacting your enterprise search results. And if you find any doozies – I’d love to hear about it!



December 10, 2019

A Working Vacation

The month of January is associated with the Roman god Janus who, with two heads, could look forward and back. That said, I find December a quiet time that provides the opportunity to review the current year and to plan the coming new year. As I tweeted yesterday at @miles_kehoe, this is the most stressful time of the year for most sites focused on eCommerce. Changes are generally 'off-limits' - even an hour offline can put a dent in sales.

But for those responsible for corporate internal and public-facing sites, this is the time to review content, identify potential changes, and even new content. And if planned well, the holidays are often a great time to update intranet sites: from late November through the new year, activity tends to slow for more corporate sites. Both IT and content staff should be using this quiet time to make changes, from updates to current content - the new vacation schedule is just one the comes to mind - to minor restructuring. (Note: while the holidays are a great time to roll out major changes, these should have been in planning months ago: it's a holiday, not a sabbatical!)

For the search team, this is time to review search activity: top queries, zero hits, misspellings, and synonyms come to mind as a minimum effort. It's also a good time to identify popular content, as well as content that was either never part of any search result or was included in result lists but never viewed.

So - December is nearly half over: take advantage of what is normally a quiet time for intranets and make that site better!

Happy Holidays!