Enterprise search remains one of the great unfulfilled promises of information technology. Vendors have claimed for nearly 30 years that their products will locate and retrieve the information you need, when you need it regardless of where it is located and whatever form it takes. Despite these assurances, fewer than 1 in 5 professionals even attempt to use the search capabilities of their corporate intranet. They know it would be a waste of time. Those optimistic few who do search enterprise resources actually find what they need less than half the time.
Despite its dismal track record, most organizations still recognize the value of effective search. A recent survey of 400 large organizations in America and Europe found that more than 70% considered enterprise search “vital” or “essential” to their business. The role of search has moved far beyond simply locating the right document. Discovery and compliance demands are pushing search into new areas and eclipsing simple information retrieval in importance. At the same time, the ever increasing scope and diversity of information sources makes those requirements ever more difficult to support.
These competing and conflicting influences lead to a no win situation for the IT department in general and the search engineer in particular. The importance of timely access to accurate information, especially in legal and competitive scenarios, raises the visibility of search applications and the people responsible for their performance. At the same time, the poor reputation of enterprise search makes decision makers reluctant to invest in either the platform itself or the processes necessary to support that platform. As a result, IT departments are overtasked and under resourced when it comes to making search viable. This leads to a vicious cycle in which demands increase, resources dwindle and the potential of search is dismissed.
Search is a mature and well-understood technology. Best practices, developed by a large community of experienced practitioners, exist to inform all aspects of the search process. Information retrieval remains an active research area in both industry and academia. Mega-platform vendors like Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and HP are investing heavily in search capabilities. As new techniques are developed and established approaches perfected, innovations continuously flow from the lab into the field.
In light of the robust state of search technology and products, it can be difficult to understand why so few organizations are successful when implementing search. In most cases, poor search performance is caused by three fundamental issues: simplistic search strategy, neglecting search engine internals, and ignoring the ecosystem. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll take a look at each of these areas and suggest a few strategies to address them. I hope you will share your experiences and tactics as well in the comments section.
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