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Search Excellence = 3 + xA + yB + zC

December 14, 2021 Knowledge and Findability
Martin White
By Martin White

My search career dates back to the mid-1970s, but it was not until I set up Intranet Focus Ltd in 1999 that I started to get seriously involved in enterprise search. Initially this was with intranet projects, where it turned out that attention had been focused completely on the information architecture with no consideration of search requirements. In 2007 I published "Making Search Work" based on my project experiences. That gained me the keynote slot in the first Enterprise Search Summit in New York in 2008. Enterprise search became my major then. My book "Enterprise Search" followed in 2011 with a second edition in 2015.

As I look at my slide deck from that 2008 keynote, I am struck by how little has changed in enterprise search satisfaction levels (far too low) and the level of appreciation (equally low) of what it takes to deliver a great search experience. I have a simple formula that will absolutely guarantee your enterprise search application makes a significant impact on both business performance and personal career development.

Search excellence = 3 + xA + yB + zC

Let me explain.

Investing in a Search Support Team

The figure 3 refers to the core search team: a Search Manager, a Search Analytics Manager and a User Support Manager. If you are offering any enterprise-wide search solution (including in an intranet) that the majority of employees will use, then you absolutely need to have this minimum team. Your search team also needs IT support, but that should be provided and funded by IT. All the evidence indicates that three factors lead to low search satisfaction: inadequate technology, poor content/metadata quality and a lack of training and support. The core team will be able to identify the extent to which the technology is the dominant issue.

Related Article: Who Needs Cognitive Search When We Lack the Resources to Make it Work?

Managing Babel in a Multi-Lingual Workplace

The core team needs the support of people with particular expertise. This is not necessarily a full time role. Role A is all about language insights. While you may assume you work in an organization where all the content is in English, the reality may surprise you! You are very likely to have employees whose first language is not English. One of my German clients had 73% of their enterprise content in English, but only 24% of employees had English as their first language. Coming up with synonyms for query expansion, assessing auto-suggestions or scanning English titles with little supporting text in the snippet were all a challenge. Role A is there to help the core team appreciate which countries or languages need specific support, and you need an A Role person for each major language. So x is the number of languages.

Related Article: Searching for Information in the Tower of Babel

B Is for Business Speak

Working for an electrical instrument company, I found that the terms used for low voltage (240/415volt) products were both very different but also very similar to those used for 33kV power line equipment. This caused many problems for search because employees assumed the application would know which product range they were working with. It was sometimes very difficult to work out the voltage from the snippet.

To add to the search problems, finding user manuals for older equipment was a significant requirement. These user manuals could only be found if the correct model number and year were used as search terms. No thought was given to employees who were new (within 5 years!) to the company. The B Role is to feed back to the core team all the business jargon and acronyms in used. The y multiplier should reflect the number of major product/service segments.

Related Article: Relevance Engineer: A New Profession in Search of Candidates

Training and User Support

The idea that search is intuitive is just so wrong. Training in search is even more important in the work from home–hybrid office environment. Role C is all about training, mentoring and feeding back issues into the development roadmap. At one time the z was based on each major office, but with work from home, it might be that you need one Role C as a minimum for roughly every 5000 employees. I advise clients to get search on the agenda of team meetings from time to time and invite a Role C along to listen to opportunities and concerns.

Related Article: Pulling Out All the Stops on Search Training

The Search Team Business Case

If you don’t invest in a search team then the consequences are:

  • You will have no idea why search seems to have failed and how to fix it.
  • Your investment in the technology is wasted.
  • Employees will use unofficial workarounds to find information.
  • Employees will then frequently make uninformed decisions.
  • These decisions will put both their careers and the reputation of the business at risk.

The visibility of your search team will reassure employees that they can trust the search application and if they experience problems they know who to turn to for advice or to raise an emerging requirement.

My Final Column: Handing Over the Baton

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson once remarked (with my thanks to his speechwriter!) that the fire of progress is lit by inspiration, fueled by information and sustained by hope and hard work. Over the last decade I hope that my columns have inspired you and provided you with the information you need to achieve a high level of search satisfaction. Although the words start off as mine Siobhan Fagan has so elegantly improved them that I have to work hard to spot her subtle but vital improvements.

I’ve been working on search for almost 50 years now. Although this is my final column I’m certainly not bowing out on being involved in probably the most fascinating, business-critical and challenging of all enterprise applications. I hope that you always find what you are looking for. In the future you can rely on Agnes Molnar as your expert guide.

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.

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