Month: March 2007

What is Under the Hood?

Last week I began this entry, re-considered how to make the point and tucked it away. Today I unearthed an article I had not gotten around to putting into my database of interesting and useful citations. Lisa Nadile in The ABCs of Search Engine Marketing, in CIO Magazine, hits the nail on the head with this statement, “Each search engine has its own top-secret algorithm to analyze this data…” This is tongue in cheek so you need to read the whole article to get the humor. Ms. Nadile’s article is geared to Internet marketing but the comments about search engines are just a relevant for enterprise search.
I may be an enterprise search analyst but there are a lot of things I don’t know about the guts of current commercial search tools. Some things I could know if I am willing to spend months studying patents and expensive reports, while other things are protected as trade secrets. I will never know what is under the hood of most products. Thirty years ago I knew a lot about relatively simple concepts like b-tree indexes and hierarchical, relational, networked and associative data structures for products I used and developed.
My focus has shifted to results and usability. My client has to be able to find all the content in their content repository or crawled site. If not, it had better be easy to discover why, and simple to take corrective actions with the search engine’s administration tools, if that is where the problem lies. If the scope of the corpus of content to be searched is likely to grow to hundreds of thousands of documents, I also care about hardware resource requirements and performance (speed) and scalability. And, if you have read previous entries, you already know that I care a lot about service and business relationships with the vendor because that is crucial to long term success. No amount of “whiz bang” technology will overcome a lousy client/vendor relationship.
Finding out what is going on under the hood with some imponderable algorithms isn’t really going to do me or my client any good when evaluating search products. Either the search tool finds stuff the way my client wants to find it, or it doesn’t. “Black art,” trade secret or “patent protected” few of us would really understand the secret sauce anyway.

Trying to Take the High Road

My last blog was in reaction to two recent vendor experiences. One had just briefed me on an enterprise search offering; the other had been ignoring my client’s efforts to get software support, training and respond to bug reports. The second blogged a reaction with a patronizing: “So Lynda should not feel too bad. I know its (sic) frustrating to deal with vendors but not all vendors are the same and she certainly hasn’t tried us all.”
With dozens of vendors offering search tools, it was fair to assume that I haven’t tried them all. However, having used search engines of all types since 1974 both as a researcher and analyst I have a pretty good sense of what’s out there. Having evaluated products for clients, and for embedded use in products I brought to market for over 20 years, it doesn’t take me long with a new product to figure out where the problems are. I also talk to a lot of vendors, search users, and read more reports and evaluations than I can count. The evidence about any one product’s strengths and weaknesses piles up pretty quickly. “Searching” for stuff about search has been my career and I do make it my business to keep score on products.
I’m going to continue to hold my counsel on naming different search tools that I’ve experienced for the time being. Instead, in this blog I’ll focus on keeping buyers informed about search technologies in general. My work as a consultant is about helping specific clients look at the best and most appropriate options for the search problems they are trying to solve and to help guide their selection process. Here is some quick generic guidance on making your first search tool choice:
> If you have not previously deployed an enterprise search solution in your domain for the corpus of content you plan to search, do not begin with the highest priced licenses. They are often also the most costly and lengthy implementations and it will take many months to know if a solution will work for you over the long haul.
> Do begin with one or more low cost solutions to learn about search, search product administration, and search engine tuning. This helps you discover what issues and problems are likely to arise, and it will inform you about what to expect (or want) in a more sophisticated solution. You may even discover that a lower cost solution will do just fine for the intended application.
> Do execute hundreds of searches yourself on a corpus of content with which you are very familiar. You want to learn if you can actually find all the content you know is there, and how the results are returned and displayed.
> Do have a variety of types of potential searchers test-drive the installed product over a period of time, review the search logs to get a sense of how they approach searching; then debrief them about their experiences, and whether their search expectations were met.
It is highly unlikely that the first enterprise search product you procure will be the best and final choice. Experience will give you a much better handle on the next selection. It is certainly true that not all vendors or products are the same but you need to do serious reality-based evaluations to learn your most important differentiators.

Setting and Meeting Customer Expectations

I had a briefing from a vendor that is a strong contender for a piece of the enterprise search market this week. The offering is impressive, other reviews have given it high technical marks and the pricing model is reasonable. But because I am currently immersed in the deployment of another enterprise search engine with a client, the issue of vendor client relationship is foremost in my focus.

I asked the CEO of this relatively new offering, what are the fundamental assumptions his company makes about customer technology environments (e.g. the mix of software applications, hardware environment) and the competencies required to integrate his software with that environment. His answer was given strictly in terms of what the IT staff needs to know to bring the product online. My question did have several levels of complexity and was probably badly phrased but I was trying to make a point by asking it.

There are three specific elements missing from search vendors:

  • Documentation or explicit models for deployment in environments where there are numerous technological variables to be considered
  • Availability of training that takes into consideration the context for enterprise search in a specific customer’s organization
  • Frank discussions with customers that set expectations about deployment and implementation, potential bottlenecks, and the need for experienced searchers, search analysts and subject matter experts on the team with the IT group

Downloading software and using automatic installers has become routine; with the launch of a menu and a few simple clicks on boxes on an administrative screen, vendors can claim “out-of-the-box” functionality. Never mind that what you find when you first search your targeted domain is nonsensical, the software finds “stuff.”

The IT guys are happy because it was easy to install, met their architecture requirement and, knowing little about the actual corpus of content, they are satisfied that everything works.

I am in a bit of a pickle with the current project, software from another vendor, because:

  • What the documentation says will happen when I make certain choices in the set-up does not, in fact, happen when a search is executed
  • My attempts through email and phone to schedule training have gone unanswered
  • My messages to the support service citing problems also get no response

I’ve only spent two weeks trying to get this software working but three weeks ago, on a holiday, I got a briefing from two executives from this firm because they were “going to be in the area” and wanted face time with a search analyst. Knowing my role as an analyst and as a client you would think they’d answer my phone calls.
What is it that makes the customer experience so easily ignored? All these products look great in demos; what is under the hood is often technologically wonderful but, boy, getting them to work in my environment always seems to be one long nightmare. I wish I could find out what I really need to know. A terrific search engine might help.

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