Reading Between the Lines of Enterprise Search
The ability to read between the lines of a document or a website page is an essential skill for a consultant. In many cases what is not written down is more interesting and helpful than the text itself. This is certainly the case with the promotional material from enterprise search vendors. I now have 70 companies on my list of enterprise search vendors, although I suspect there are more out there.
An overriding message emerges after visiting their websites: every vendor claims to have a unique technology that is easy to install and manage, with connectors for all enterprise applications and the promise of highly relevant results on the first SERP in seconds. In general, they are all immensely proud of their technology-led strategy which ensures it will find information in all enterprise repositories in order to deliver relevant results at the top of the first page of results, often the result of a deft sprinkling of AI magic dust. What more could you want?
Are Enterprise Search Vendors Selling a Product or a Service?
Enterprise search vendors (ESVs) face two commercial challenges. The first is determining who will make the ultimate decision on a contract. Enterprise search is more ‘enterprise’ than most other enterprise applications. A substantial majority of employees will use search and the solution will ideally federate search to other applications. That means the procurement process will involve so many people that RACI governance is pushed to the point of collapse. A product pitch that focuses on time saved, the benefits of faster search or improved productivity will not make a quantifiable business case for a fairly large amount of software licenses and professional service support.
The second challenge is whether to sell a product or a service. Most ESVs seem to fall in the product space, with a proposal whose essence is: “buy our software, install and connect, then sit back and take the applause for fixing all search problems.” This approach fails to address two important issues. Very few ESVs have the capability to support even a large-scale single country implementation, much less a global customer. Building a good partner network is essential and that takes time and a substantial amount of effort from the ESV itself. Partners will also be unwilling to make a commensurate commitment unless they can be certain that there is enough business to justify it.
Remember that search optimization is a daily task, because content and business requirements also change daily. Do you have the skills and expertise to meet this requirement?
Assessing a New Search Platform's Success Takes Time
What does the timeline look like for an enterprise search engagement? A very simplistic four phase project might look like:
- Working through the procurement process to contract terms — 3 months.
- Initial installation and implementation — 3 months.
- Monitoring usage patterns and sorting out content-related blips — 3 months.
- Attainment of a high level of search satisfaction across the organization — 3 months.
This timeline assumes you have a search strategy and a good understanding of user requirements. The implication is it will take at least a year before you can be certain you have bought the optimum solution for your search requirements. If this turns out not to be the case, it is very difficult to go to your senior manager, explain the failure, and ask for a second chance.
Related Article: Diagnosing Enterprise Search Failures
Managing the Risk
If you want to manage the risks to your organization (and of course to your personal reputation) then ask these five questions from my list of 10 to ask search vendors. You'll never find them mentioned in their effervescent product pitches.
- Do you have a process for involving customers in technology roadmap planning?
- Over the last 12 months what has been the range of project implementation timelines for customers with a similar content/user profile to yours?
- Will a partner be involved in the implementation of the software? If so, how many similar projects have they undertaken in the last 12 months?
- Do you have staff with recent experience of managing enterprise search applications in organizations so that you have first-hand appreciation user intents and management expectations?
- Do you support customers exchanging good practice about the way they are exploiting your software?
Speak to Other Customers
The definitive risk-management question is to ask to speak to three customers with a similar size/industry/search maturity profile to your own organization prior to signing a contract (ideally earlier). This discussion should take place without the vendor being present. If there is any reluctance (or even resistance) to making this happen then ask yourself why an ESV would not want you to talk to three of their very satisfied customers in order to speed up the closure of a contract with you?
About the Author
Martin White is Managing Director of Intranet Focus, Ltd. and is based in Horsham, UK. An information scientist by profession, he has been involved in information retrieval and search for nearly four decades as a consultant, author and columnist.