Month: April 2007

Turning Around a Bad Enterprise Search Experience

Many organizations have experimented with a number of search engines for their enterprise content. When the search engine is deployed within the bounds of a specific content domain (e.g. a QuickPlace site) the user can assume that the content being searched is within that site. However, an organization’s intranet portal with a free-standing search box comes with a different expectation. Most people assume that search will find content anywhere in the implied domain, and for most of us we believe that all content belonging to that domain (e. g. a company) is searchable.
I find it surprising how many public Web sites for media organizations (publishers) don’t appear to have their site search engines pointing to all the sub-sites indicated in site maps. I know from my experience at client sites that the same is often true for enterprise searching. The reasons are numerous and diverse, commentary for another entry. However, one simple notation under or beside the search box can clarify expectations. A simple link to a “list of searchable content” will underscore the caveat or at least tip the searcher that the content is bounded in some way.
When users in an organization come to expect that they will not find, through their intranet, what they are seeking but know to exist somewhere in the enterprise, they become cynical and distrustful. Having a successful intranet portal is all about building trust and confidence that the search tool really works or “does the job.” Once that trust is broken, new attempts to change the attitudes by deploying a new search engine, increasing the license to include more content, or doing better tuning to return more reliable results is not going to change minds without a lot of communication work to explain the change. I know that the average employee believes that all the content in the organization should be brought together in some form of federated search but now know it isn’t. The result is that they confine themselves to embedded search within specific applications and ignore any option to “search the entire intranet.”
It would be great to see comments from readers who have changed a Web site search experience from a bad scene to one with a positive traffic gain with better search results. Let us know how you did it so we can all learn.

The FAST acquisition of Convera

It has been a couple of weeks since the announcement that Fast Search & Transfer would acquire Convera’s RetrievalWare, a search technology built on the foundation of Excalibur and widely used in government enterprises.

At a recent Boston KM Forum meeting I asked Hadley Reynolds, VP & Director of the Center for Search Innovation at Fast, to comment on the acquisition. He indicated Fast’s interest in building up a stronger presence in the government sector, a difficulty for a Norwegian-based company. I remember Fast as a company launching in the U.S. with great fanfare in 2002 ( ) to support, a portal to multi-agency content of the U.S. Government. That site has recently been re-launched as using the Vivisimo search portal. There must be a story behind the story, as I hope to learn.

To add to the discussion, last week I moderated a session at the Gilbane San Francisco conference at which Helen Mitchell, Senior Search Strategist for Credo Systems and Workgroup Chairperson for the Convera User Group, spoke. I asked Helen before the program about her reaction to the recent announcement. She had already been in contact with Fast and received assurances that Convera Federal Users would be well supported by Fast and they want to actively participate in conversations with the group through on-line and in-person meetings. Helen was positive about the potential for RetrievalWare users gaining from the best of Fast technology while still being supported with the unique capabilities of Convera’s semantic, faceted search.

Erik Schwartz, Director of Product Management from Convera, was also present; I encouraged him and Helen to leverage the RetrievalWare user community to make sure Fast really understands the unique and diverse needs of search within the enterprise. We are all well aware that in the rush to build up large customer bases with a solid revenue stream of maintenance, vendors are likely to sacrifice unique technologies that are highly valued by customers. A bottom-line round of pragmatic cost cutting usually determines what R&D a vendor will fund, foregoing the long term good will that could accrue if they would belly-up to integrating these unique features into their own platform.

Time will tell how serious Fast is in giving its new base a truly valuable customer experience. I would also note that this acquisition has also been observed by a broader information management industry publication, Information Week. See David Gardner’s article at

Search Help and Usability

Preparing for two upcoming meetings with search themes (Gilbane San Francisco and Boston KM Forum) has brought to mind many issues of search usability. At the core is the issue of search literacy. Offering some fundamental searching tips to non-professional searchers often results in a surprised reaction. (e.g. When told, if seeking information about a specific topic such as “industrial engineering,” enclose it in quotes to limit the search to that phrase. Without quotes, you will get all content with “industrial” and “engineering” anywhere in the content with no explicit relationship implied.)

If you are reading this you probably know that, but many do not. In order to learn what people search for on their company intranet and how they type their search requests, I spend time reading search log files. I do this for several reasons:

  • To learn terminology searchers are using to guide taxonomy building choices
  • To see the way searches are formulated, and followed up
  • To inform design decisions about how to make searching easier
  • To see what is searched but not found to inform future content inclusion
  • To view the searcher’s next step when the results are zero or huge

wo results remain consistent: less than 1% of the searchers place a phrase inside quotations, even when there are multiple words; word are often truncated but do not include a truncation symbol (usually an asterisk, “*”). Both reveal a probable lack of search conventions understanding, a search literacy problem. Here are a couple of possible solutions:

> Put into place better help and training mechanisms to help the lost find their way,
> Remove the legacy practice of forcing command language type symbols on searchers for the most common search requests

Placing punctuation around a search string is a holdover from 30 years ago when searching was done using a command language. Since only a limited number of people ever knew this syntactical format, why does it persist as the default for a phrase search for Web-based search engines?

The solution of providing a better help page and getting people to actually use it is a harder proposition. This one from McGraw-Hill for BusinessWeek Online is pretty simple with just seven tips but who reads it? I expect very few, although it could dramatically improve their search results.

If you are trying to improve the search experience for your intranet, there are two resources to consult for content usability on all fronts, not just search:, Jakob Nielsen’s Website and Jared Spool’s UIEtips, User Interface Engineering’s free email newsletter. In the meantime, think about whether you need to demand more core search usability or tunable default options from vendors, or whether better interface design could guide searchers to better results.

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