people watching a fireworks display
PHOTO: Chris Gilbert

A new year is a time for change, and resolving to review and improve your enterprise search makes an admirable objective. Of course, if your primary implementation of search is for ecommerce applications, this is not the season to make any changes — delay that project for February, after the holiday season and post-holiday rush. And if you’re fortunate enough to be responsible for “easy” search — searching relatively static corporate content, with simple problems like only occasional updates and no document level security — be grateful for your relatively low-stress job.

But if the most common adjective you hear in association with your enterprise search instance is “sucks,” I’d encourage you to make improving search your top new year’s project. And trust me, the odds are that simply changing your search platform is not the best solution to your problems — even though that may seem like an easy solution. I can comfortably say that most search platforms are generally pretty good. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been asked to help replace a technology when, in fact, the platform is not the primary culprit. Rather, the true problem lies in how the search platform is configured, implemented or managed. 

If you are responsible for search in your organization, I encourage you to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Fixing what you have is nearly always less expensive than replacing it; and often the same problems in your current search will carry over if you simply exchange your current vendor for one of its competitors. But in the occasional instance when the platform is the problem, replacing it does make sense.

Before You Pick a New Search Platform

You've decided to change your search platform. But before you jump into an evaluation and replacement project, I strongly recommend speaking with your exiting vendor. Document the issues you are seeing and provide the vendor with a prioritized list of the issues you and your user community have identified. Most vendors are happy to invest time and effort to retain clients, and they should be more than happy to make things right.

Nonetheless, not every technology is the right fit for every environment. Once you, along with your current vendor, have attempted to fix the issues in your existing platform, you have a decision: keep the platform you have, or start evaluating competitors. Yes, change can be painful, but sometimes it’s the best approach.

I’ve seen companies, after giving up on a platform, simply return to the list of vendors in the original evaluation and selecting the runner up. This will often be a mistake.

Depending on how long you’ve been struggling with the platform you are replacing, the market may have changed. New players may have entered the market, vendors may have updated their platforms — for better, or worse — and new vendors may have entered the market. I’d strongly encourage you to review the market and undertake a new evaluation. You might consider retaining appropriate expertise to help out here.

Related Article: Assess Search Performance With Search Tasks

Evaluating Your Enterprise Search Options

Once you decide to move forward with a new review of the market, start by examining your previous review to identify what you may have missed that lead to the current unsuccessful platform. I’d suggest:

  • Identify a list of required capabilities: Include desired "nice to have" features and features that may not initially seem relevant to you. Don’t disqualify a vendor if they have features not on your requirements list — once everything is in and running, you may decide to evaluate and perhaps implement the additional capabilities.
  • Verify security: Be certain that your candidate search platform fully supports the security technologies in use in your organization. Thoroughly test security capabilities as you evaluate technologies.
  • Document Support: Gather representative documents in use in your organization and, during your evaluation, test that every format your organization uses indexes properly. Confirm that you have included all formats in use.
  • Cost: Start your evaluation with a budget and stick to it. While many vendors may insist their price list is hard and fast, in fact, sales staff and management have remarkable flexibility — especially near the end of a quarter.

Related Article: Can You Talk to Your Search Vendor?

Implementation Time

Vendors will generally offer an implementation team to assist in installation, configuration and training. Generally, their consulting and training staff are well versed in the product and can serve as a valuable part of your team. There are also companies that partner with vendors and those partner companies can provide the same quality assistance and training. Sometimes you’ll find a partner's staff can provide a broader “real world" view and can assist you in the evaluation selection, implementation and use of vendors' products.

Related Article: Buying an Enterprise Search Platform? Don't Forget an Integration Platform