alone and ignored
The most common culprit when it comes to enterprise search's failure? Lack of support — in hiring, funding and attention PHOTO: Elisabetta Foco

Everywhere I go, I hear another story of how bad enterprise search is. 

Users, IT staff and management complain, often resulting in the decision by their organization to replace the existing vendor. I’d wager companies switch their search platforms more frequently than any other mission-critical application.

While the situation is frustrating for organizations using search platforms, the same can't be said 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. The only loser is the current vendor — and they are often too busy converting new customers to worry too much.

But switching search vendors every few years causes real problems for organizations that simply want employees and users to find the right content accurately, quickly and without any significant user training. As always, Google set the bar for employee search expectations many years ago. 

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 most organizations fail to assign a search owner. A recent search on LinkedIn for “vice president database” jobs turned up over 1500 results. A search for “vice president enterprise search” resulted in 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 is an enterprise application where “up and running” is just not good enough.

Along with no “search owner,” there's often no “search quality team” — and likely no budget for measuring and maintaining result quality.

Metadata: The Easiest Way to Impact Search Data Quality

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

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 associated data about the document — the metadata. Some of the metadata just happens — the file date, its size, the file name and path. 

Other metadata depends on author-provided properties such as a title, subject and fielded data like that maintained in the Office "Properties" tab. Tools like the Stanford Named Entity Recognition tool (licensed under the GNU General Public License) 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 more. The problem is, few people go to the effort of filling the property fields correctly, so you end up with bad metadata. And bad data is arguably worse than no metadata.

Don’t believe me? Check out:

You’ll find an official US government document, apparently written in Microsoft Word: but you can’t tell anything more from the website.

Solving the Enterprise Search Problem

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

To break the buy and replace cycle and to truly take advantage of these new technological solutions, you need a team who actively participates in making your enterprise search a success.

Identify an executive owner, and then pull together a team who can help. Something as simple as looking at your reports and taking action can go a long way.

Review the queries with no results and see if synonyms would help find the right content without changing the content. Identify the right page for your most popular queries and define one or two “best bets." If you find some frequent queries without relevant content? Work with your web team to create appropriate content. 

Funding? Convince the right person in your organization 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.