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3 posts from July 2012

July 25, 2012

What's the least expensive search platform?

Looking for a new enterprise search platform? Considered the least expensive alternative? 

Consider its benefits:

  • It costs only a fraction of what you paid for your current platform
  • You're already familiar with its interface
  • It doesn't take a great deal of time to bring up

The only real downside is that it will take more time managing it - checking up on user queries, tuning it to work well, and creating and tracking bests bets and behavior-based taxonomy terms.

What platform am I talking about? It's the one you're using now. 

"But wait," you say. "It sucks. Users are unhappy, management is ready to toss it out, and I may lose my job just by hinting that we should keep this crummy platform that can't even recognize our CEO's name!"

Think back to when your existing platform was new. Everyone had such high hopes for it because the then-incumbent platform it was replacing was just awful. When did it lose the magic?

Organizations purchase a new search platform is purchased after a long and costly evaluation. The demo looked great, the code was written, and new search rolled out to great fanfare. But after the initial buzz, users think the new search is about the same as before. A few queries work better, and a few works less effectively, but it's different. Maybe it will get better. Sadly, it rarely does.

We often hear from companies who are looking for a new search platform because their current platform just isn't working. Usually, by the time they call us, they've already made the decision to replace the current platform; it's too late to save the relationship. 

In some of my talks at ESS and KMWorld, and in our webinars, I've made that claim that, beyond a certain level of functionality, just about any search platform can present pretty good results in a 'Google-like' way. I really do believe that; and I when I hear that an organization wants to replace its search platform without even trying to fix it, I feel like there was a lost opportunity. 

I remember a quote I head when I was a young Systems Engineer at HP: "If you don't have resources to do it right, what makes you think you'll have the resources to do it over?"

Think about it - and if your relationship with your search platform is on the rocks, think about seeing a specialist.













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.

July 06, 2012

Search appliance 'blues'

Over the US Independence day holiday many of us learned that Google is dropping its entry-level search GsaBlue box, the Google Mini. This comes as part of 'summer cleaning', the Mini being dropped with a number of other services and products that are just not hot enough to support the effort. (The one I'll really miss? iGoogle.) Google hasn't provided much information on how successful the GSA 'Blue' has been, but with a price point between $3K US and $10K US I imagine they moved a bunch of them to customers with simple search requirements. 

I think it may have Steve Arnold who said recently that the Google pubic web search and its advertising sales accounting for something like 96% of the company's revenue, so I don't think too many Googlers are upset about losing a small slice of a small slice of revenue. Heck, Mini proficts probably don't even pay the fuel bills for a weekend flight to Europe for the Google 767.

The impact? Well, back then the Mini was new and it was big news. Heck, the bigger  models were even better at not too much more money. Still, enterprise search was an expensive proposition then. Lucene was pretty new and quite rough around the edges; FAST, Exalead and Endeca were selling for upwards of $250K, and needed at least that amount of money to actually get them to work. Google Site Search was there; but not many other enterprise search products were around for that price.

A funny thing happened in the new century. Now enterprise customers are more demanding about search. The GSA - even the larger models - is generally well-received at first. At least as long as the 'Powered by Google' icon is visible. We had one customer tell us that just licensing the Google icon would solve most of his user complaints. And Verity's Andy Feit proved it statistically a year or two later. (Have a look at our post last year 'It's not Google unless it says it's Google'.)

But over time, even when content and user query activity remains about the same, people become increasingly frustrated using the GSA. But will Google abandon the color yellow too? Steve Arnold has wondered on LinkedIn whether the larger Google appliances are going to see the same fate soon. 

The problem isn't that it's an appliance. It's the closed system that people are turning away from. In the enterprise, you can't use the cool techniques that Google uses to generate psychic results on the internet. In the enterprise, managers know what content to boost; Metadata? Fielded search? Boost based on content? Not in the blue (or yellow) world. 

Still, I think Google and the GSA provide pretty darned good value for a certain part of the market. If your data is pretty decent; if you're serving highly interliked web and PDF content; if your data needs are not too demanding - GSA may be the solution you want. But before you spend money blindly, do what you do with any product you buy - verify it works in your environment. And as with any enterprise search platform, allocate a budget to run it properly after roll-out.

Yes, search has changed. Really good low-cost options are available. Where? Well, in addition to Google's site search offerings, there's Lucid Imagination's cloud and on-premises solutions; and some other darned good offerings based on open source: Flax - SearchBlox - and more.

What do you think? Is the loss of the Mini giving you the blues? 


(With thanks to Karan!)