a man waving goodbye
If you're frustrated with the state of your enterprise search, try these steps before looking for a new solution PHOTO: hobvias sudoneighm

A friend of mine who is a doctor told me one of the things he values most in his practice is the trust his patients place in him to diagnose and prescribe a solution for what ails them, quickly and at minimum cost. He confessed it sometimes takes a couple of tries to find the most effective treatment, but his patients recognize the practice of medicine is not always clear cut, and trust he will guide them to an effective treatment.

Can you imagine what the practice of medicine would turn into if people fired their doctor because their symptoms persisted a day or two after taking the initial medication? It doesn’t happen. Because patients generally return to the doctor and explain the situation, which often results in a new approach or a different prescription to solve the issue.

That started me thinking about my field of expertise, enterprise search. Part of my practice is helping evaluate requirements, recommend the best solution, plan and help in the implementation phase, and plan for managing ongoing operation.

Frustrated by Your Enterprise Search? Think Before You Switch

A common scenario: a company deployed a new enterprise search solution more than a year ago and users are totally frustrated. After an initial spike in search activity, it dropped off as users decided that asking a co-worked was a better way to get useful answers. Users clamor to replace the search technology with Google — even if the technology you are using is Google. There is a growing push to fire your current search vendor.

IT and business content managers understand that selecting, deploying and managing a new enterprise initiative is going to be costly and time-consuming. They also know doubling down on your enterprise search investment carries no guarantee to produce the stellar results users have come to expect.

What’s an IT manager or search owner to do?

Sometimes it is too far gone. Too many delays and too many cost overruns have stymied any initial enthusiasm. Employees use public internet search engines to find answers to their questions. In these cases, change is inevitable.

On the other hand, if you’re not quite ready to start over, and no pronouncement has yet come from on high, there are some steps you can take to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat, save big bucks for the organization and (just maybe) solidify your reputation as a hero.

I can’t go as far as claiming there are no bad search engines, but different search engines may fit best in different environments. Perhaps you’ve got what I call a "search engine mismatch."

While there are always exceptions, for the most part, every enterprise search vendor I’ve worked with wants happy clients. This means they are willing to do whatever it takes to solve problems.  So before you fire your enterprise vendor in a fit of frustration, I’d suggest trying the following approach.

A 5-Step Plan to Salvage Your Enterprise Search

1. Review the Initial Process

Prior to the initial technology selection, I’d expect your organization did a thorough analysis of the business requirements for search. This is a good time to review those requirements to find out what users are specifically unhappy with. Identify the specific issues, even if the complaints are vague.

  • Were there requirements that were not include in the original selection criteria? 
  • What are the top problems you hoped to address with the search at purchase?
  • What problem are you trying to solve with the search system?

2. Engage Your Users to Understand Their Complaints

Users may say, “It’s not as good as Google.” That's not a fair claim, press them for specifics. Are they frustrated by the interface not being as simple and straightforward as Google? Are they unhappy because the results are bad, or are they just badly presented? 

Understand your user's expectations. How do they search? Do they use single term queries? Help users understand how to ask better questions. And if you do not have them already set in your search platform, implement functionality like, “did you mean?” or “people like you.”

3. Meet With Your Vendor

Call your current vendor and level with them. Tell them about the issues you are having and what you have learned from your users, including their issues and concerns about the product. Share the business requirements you started with and any that have been added or changed in the interim. Bring in the logs of how your users search. 

These sorts of problems can often be resolved with some smart pre-search-time processing. Have your vendor bring in their best people to participate in the solution. With all of the issues laid out, work with the vendor to create a plan to get the system and your users back in sync.

4. Create a Plan (With Your Vendor When Possible)

Assuming your vendor is ready to help, work with them to create a plan: 

  • Review your team and your user's training and skills in the technology. 
  • Confirm the content is being indexed properly. Is the metadata helping or hurting? 
  • Establish a "top 5" or "top 10" list of things to address.

5. Implement the Plan

Work with vendor to create an implementation plan to address your top concerns. Your vendor is your partner: they don’t want to lose your business. Also remember the costs involved with selecting and implementing a new solution. Your vendor will likely be willing to provide resources to keep you as a client, but if during the process you discover your requirements might not have been spot on, you should be willing to give as well.

In the end, if you and your vendor work together openly and honestly, you have a good chance of salvaging the relationship, providing your users with world-class search and avoiding any regrettable "he said/she said" finger pointing.

If after this you still need to divorce your vendor, at least you tried.