Controlling Your Enterprise Search Application

When interviewing search administrators who had also been part of product selection earlier this year, I asked about surprises they had encountered. Some involved the selection process but most related to on-going maintenance and support. None commented on actual failures to retrieve content appropriately. That is a good thing whether it was because, during due diligence they had already tested for that during a proof of concept or because they were lucky.
Thinking about how product selections are made, prompts me to comment on a two major search product attributes that control the success or failure of search for an enterprise. One is the actual algorithms that control content indexing, what is indexed and how it is retrieved from the index (or indices). The second is the interfaces, interfaces for the population of searchers to execute selections, and interfaces for results presentation. On each aspect, buyers need to know what they can control and how best to execute it for success.
Indexing and retrieval technology is embedded with search products; the number of administrative options to alter search scalability, indexing and content selection during retrieval is limited to none. The “secret sauce” for each product is largely hidden, although it may have patented aspects available for researching. Until an administrator of a system gets deeply into tuning, and experimenting with significant corpuses of content, it is difficult to assess the net effect of delivered tuning options. The time to make informed evaluations about how well a given product will retrieve your content when searched by your select audience is before a purchase is made. You can’t control the underlying technology but you can perform a proof of concept (PoC). This requires:

  • human resources and a commitment of computing resources
  • well-defined amount, type and nature (metadata plus full-text or full-text unstructured-only) to give a testable sample
  • testers who are representative of all potential searchers
  • a comparison of the results with three to four systems to reveal how well they each retrieve the intended content targets
  • knowledge of the content by testers and similarity of searches to what will be routinely sought by enterprise employees or customers
  • search logs of previously deployed search systems, if they exist. Searches that routinely failed in the past should be used to test newer systems

Interface technology
Unlike the embedded search technology, buyers can exercise design control or hire a third-party to produce search interfaces that vary enormously. Controlling for what searchers experience when they first encounter a search engine, either a search box at a portal or a completely novel variety of search options with search box, navigation options or special search forms is within the control of the enterprise. This may be required if what comes “out-of-the box” as the default is not satisfactory. You may find, at a reasonable price, a terrific search engine that scales well, indexes metadata and full-text competently and retrieves what the audience expects but requires a different look-and-feel for your users. Through an API (application programming interface), SDK (software development kit) or application connectors (e.g. Documentum, SharePoint) numerous customization options are delivered with enterprise search packages or are available as add-ons.
In either case, human resource costs must be added to the bottom line. A large number of mature software companies and start-ups are innovating with both their indexing techniques and interface design technologies. They are benefiting from several decades of search evolution for search experts, and now a decade of search experiences in the general population. Search product evolution is accelerating as knowledge of searcher experiences is leveraged by developers. You may not be able to control emerging and potentially disruptive technologies, but you can still exercise beneficial controls when selecting and implementing most any search system.

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