Success Factors for Enterprise Search

One of the things I get asked most often is “What Makes Good Enterprise Search”? Every enterprise is different, so there is not a universal solution, but there are things that are common across every successful Enterprise Search project I’ve encountered.

I’ll start with what absolutely does not work. The “dump it in the index and hope for the best” approach that I’ve seen some companies try, which just makes the problem worse. Increasing the size of the haystack won’t help you find a needle.

Ok, now that’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s talk about some common complaints and ways I’ve seen them successfully addressed.

I can’t find anything.  Why is the document I need so far down?  Search stinks!

Ever hear any of these things?  Come on, tell the truth.

A clear, consistently applied set of metadata will do more than any other single factor to increase user satisfaction with Enterprise Search.  It provides users a “roadmap” that they can use to navigate through the complexities of the various types of content in a very familiar way.  Want to understand the value of metadata?  Try this:

  • Open a browser and go to
  • Type the word “oxford” – see what pops up?  That’s metadata.
  • Keep typing – add the word “English”.  See how the query suggestions change?
  • Hit Enter and when the results pop up, look at the refinement panel on the left.  Metadata.

People use sites like Amazon and others every day, and in a lot of cases don’t even think about them as being search driven.  They are tools that you use to buy things, book vacations, or find online entertainment.  What they all have in common is that metadata drives the experience.

Where is the content I need?

This is the obvious one.  For search to be “Enterprise”, it needs to be the sole access point for all the content users need.  This allows them to focus on what they need and not be concerned with where it is stored.  This is not to say that all users need the same content, but rather each set of users needs to be able to access whatever subset of enterprise content is relevant to them.
For the most part, this post is about what users need, but it’s pretty important to mention security here.  In most organizations, the first time that a user sees content through Enterprise Search that they are not authorized to see, the whole thing gets shut down.  Test, and test again, before you roll it out.  Remember that the issue may be the permissions in the content sources, not the Enterprise Search solution at all.

This doesn’t help me do my job!

This is where popular internet sites shine (Amazon) and most intranets don’t.  When you look at the needs of your user population, don’t think about “search” – think about what it is they are trying to accomplish.  Are they attorneys who need a complete view of their clients?  Associates at a pharmaceutical company responding to requests from their field-based colleagues?  Whatever the case, in general they won’t come to you and ask for “Enterprise Search”.  They will describe the challenges they face in doing their jobs, and in many cases a high quality search solution can provide a lot of the answer.  But usability is a key consideration.  Make sure the UI is modern and pleasing and provides clear navigation.  Give users tools that assist in search (the query suggestions and refinement panel from Amazon are great examples).   Make sure the results are presented in a way that lends itself to people actually USING the content they retrieve; you probably won’t have an “add to cart” button, but you get the idea.

Why is this happening?

How often have you heard from users that they can’t find what they are looking for, and then you are unable to get any real detail as to what is wrong?  Or search has been humming happily along for a while and then suddenly there starts to be lots of complaints?  Do you have the tools to diagnose what is happening?

Monitoring and analysis is probably the most often overlooked aspect of Enterprise Search, but when properly addressed it can yield huge benefits for you and your users.  The reality is that search is a journey, not a destination – your organization will release new products or services, you’ll rename a department or two, employees will come and go.  All of these events can impact how Enterprise Search is perceived, and if you have up to date, actionable information available on how Enterprise Search is being used and how well it is working, you can respond quickly to issues that come up, or ideally see potential issues coming and take steps to avoid them altogether.

This is certainly not a complete list, but these are some of the more common attributes I see in Enterprise Search implementations that meet or exceed user expectations.  If you boil it all down, it’s about looking at things from the perspective of end users and thinking about what make them most productive.