Many business managers -- mostly in IT -- try to develop an investment case for enterprise search. This is impossible. Search is only one element in the decision-making chain. The question to ask is whether all relevant information has been found to ensure that the decision (based partially or totally on this information) is in the best interests of the organization.
There's another aspect of ROI. 2014 has been marked by a significant level of financial investment in open source search. Venture funds are not charities, they expect a good return on their investment. While some of the businesses they back will not make an acceptable return, this means that others in the portfolio have to over-deliver to ensure that the investments pay off.
Still Significant Adoption of Commercial Search
Commercial search vendors have had a difficult few years. Many have vanished in recent years either through acquisition or failure to attract and keep customers. Others, notably Coveo and Funnelback, have capitalized on this situation, because a good case remains for having a vendor deliver an integrated stack of applications and then maintain performance through technical upgrades and ongoing support.
It's hard to establish reliable figures for the number of installed commercial search applications, but any attempt should take into account IBM and Oracle enterprise suite customers, organizations running SharePoint (especially SharePoint 2013), Google ESA installations and cloud services such as Amazon AWS. The search capability of file-share applications is improving and most intranet products (for example Thoughtfarmer and Interact Intranet) offer good search applications. Sitecore now has Coveo as a partner, which is just one example of improved search performance in the CMS business.
The increasing use of Apache Lucene and Solr with additional applications integrated into the suite and paid for on a commercial basis is another important trend. Examples include Omnifind, Attivio, PolySpot and IntraFind.
The ROI of Commercial Search
Open source development will continue to be an important solution for a wide range of unstructured and structured content discovery requirements, but this approach won't suit every organization. An IT department may lack the skills and time to develop search requirements, manage the development process, integration into existing stack and continued management of the upgrade process and new requirements.
The integration process is a particular challenge. As search's benefits become more widely recognized, search will be required across a wider range of repositories and applications. This integration expertise could be provided by an internal or external development team, but software development companies often do not want to be involved in systems integration.
Much is made (and for good reason) of the benefits of having a development community focused on improving the code base. For example, the Elasticsearch support plans are all focused on development and production support. However many organizations are looking for a different type of community, one that offers the ability to meet other users of the application and share implementation and development experience.
Before the Microsoft acquisition of FAST Search and Transfer in 2008, the FAST Forward user conference was the annual event in the search business. It provided an excellent opportunity for customers to meet and share experiences, as well as helping FAST identify product development opportunities.
Commercial Search Reborn
Venture fund owners' demands for ROI will inevitably focus the open source development community on revenue opportunities. There is a slow, but steadily increasing awareness of the importance of effective search solutions, thanks mainly to the results of surveys from AIIM, Findwise and NetStrategyJMC. The result is a growing market for both new and replacement search applications.
That's good news for the venture funds behind companies such as Elasticsearch and Lucid Works. And it's also good news for start-up companies looking to create a new generation of search applications: Applications built on open source platforms, but targeted at IT departments (who still own or manage the majority of search applications) who feel more comfortable with purchasing a product with edges to it and a traditional approach to product roadmap development and post-implementation support.
A year ago I wrote that 2014 would be the year when search started to become business critical. During the year the AIIM and Findwise surveys showed a strong commitment to building search strategies. Over the next couple of years I think we will see an increase, not decrease, in the range of commercial search applications.