Why can't we just get Google? That's a common question often heard from all levels within an organization that is trying to improve the search experience on their intranet. In part one, we examined the desire to duplicate the Google search experience in the enterprise (you can read part 1 here). In part 2, we will examine shifting the perspective to the user experience and end with 6 essential activities to the construction of a solid foundation for any enterprise search initiative.

Shifting Perspectives, Moving from Appliance to Experience

Within the enterprise, we can see that organizational content is frequently structured quite differently than its web content counterpart. Often, a single document such as a policy, standard operating procedure or corporate guideline will be comprised of tens if not hundreds of pages along with a multitude of topics. As a result, the automated extraction and indexation of all that text tends to provide less insight into what that document is really about.

While a variety of those 200 plus signals might still apply in one form or another behind the firewall, many of the more important attributes influencing algorithmic relevancy on the web, such as targeted keyword use and a complex interlinking between information assets, are rare. This means the process of automated metadata inference in this manner becomes less powerful overall.

As a result, we need to change our perspective on what we expect from enterprise search based on what we’re willing to do to make it work. This means taking a closer look into redesigning the overall experience to move away from an emphasis on full-text indexing and toward ways that not only provide direct access to the answer, but also promote discovery, exploration and raise awareness.

Enterprise search should in fact be more relevant inside the organization primarily because we have greater control over both the inputs and outputs required to make it work. If we start thinking about how best to facilitate the conversation by taking a more active role in understanding our content and its structure, along with our users and their access needs, we will be better able to design and deliver a simpler, more effective and relevant search experience.

Disambiguation through Faceted Refinement

Our existing enterprise search tools (out of the box) place little emphasis on promoting conversation through the process of disambiguation. Facilities inherent within the technology that do so are commonly not configured properly, don’t have the appropriate inputs available or are turned off altogether. As a result, full-text indexing along with the document title, short snippet and ten results per page become the common default experience.

One approach we’re beginning to see more of in an effort to improve enterprise search comes to us in the form of faceted refinement. The introduction of facets to the search interface provides the ability to easily refine a result set based on the unique properties of the result set itself.

Known as faceted search or guided navigation, it provides for the categorization of search results based on metadata attributes, along with the numerical distribution of those results across available values. Like the approaches to disambiguation mentioned earlier, this type of advanced search helps guide searchers down the appropriate path by providing a variety of predefined options for discovery, rather than a relying on the searcher to know exactly what they’re looking for in advance.

However, unlike the typical ecommerce experience where product attributes such as size, color and price inherently become the basis for facet development, the ability to succinctly describe organizational content in the same manner is a greater challenge. The establishment of meaningful dimensions is a subjective exercise in defining both the “is-ness” of our content as well as its “about-ness”, or how we wish to describe it. A well thought out and intuitively designed metadata schema and controlled vocabulary are the foundation to a successful faceted search experience.

Taxonomy defines consistent organizing principles for enterprise information based on the language of our business users, and for this to be effective, it’s crucial that we engage subject matter experts in the process since they understand the content best. What this means is that the business must also be engaged and responsible for the search experience and can no longer think of it as just a function of IT. If we’re constantly generating and feeding poorly formatted content into our search tools, our only expectation can be to get the same back when searching.

6 Steps to Enterprise Search Improvement

The following activities are essential elements to the construction of a solid foundation for any enterprise search initiative.

  1. Perform Content Analysis - Evaluate the environment to determine the types of documents produced and their overall importance along with identification of unique metadata attributes. This exercise, while important for search, is also the foundation for building successful information architectures.
    • What types of content do we have? Of those identified, which have organizational value? What makes them unique? Who has ownership responsibility? How is their lifecycle managed?
  2. Understand the Audience - Understand the range of user types we have and what their individual content requirements are. This becomes the basis for a more personalized experience throughout the intranet as a whole and likely includes definition by location, department, job role, title and/or group.
    • Who do we serve and what are their needs?
  3. Create A Content Enrichment Approach- Develop a consistent set of organizing principles in the form of taxonomy and controlled vocabulary that will be applied to unstructured content (either manually or automatically) during the authoring, approval, publishing or consumption processes.
    • What are the underlying organizing principles? How do our users think about the types of content we’ve identified? How can we tag them in ways that best describe what they are and what they’re about?
  4. Develop Search Scenarios - Capture, document and design information access scenarios in the form of use cases based on an understanding of the unique needs of our users. This includes search interfaces and consideration of points of interaction including desktop, mobile and application search.
    • How do our users want to search? From where? What does the interaction look like? How and where can we leverage search and taxonomy to display relevant content? What approaches to disambiguation can we take? Are search needs different among different processes or workflow stages?
  5. Evaluate Tools & Technologies - Make full use of functionality available by understanding how best to configure the technology that has been procured. Slight adjustments to out of the box settings including metadata mapping, best bets and thesaurus management can often make a significant difference in improving overall relevance.
    • What can we do with what we have? What functions are available to us? What do we need to do to make them work?
  6. Design Governance - Lastly, but most important is the establishment of standard processes for review, maintenance and enhancement along with identification of specific roles and responsibilities around content management, search and taxonomy. This includes shared responsibility across departments in addition to subject matter expert engagement. Further development of editorial guidelines, naming conventions, templates, workflow and standard publishing models will ultimately move us closer to our overall goals.

Once we’ve made our way through these activities and our content is being appropriately enriched, we can start to fully leverage taxonomy and metadata in the design of innovative applications like faceted search.

Moving Toward the Google Experience

For the reasons stated, I believe why can’t we just get Google? is the wrong question to be asking and, in the context of the larger enterprise, I would challenge whether that was what was really wanted. After all is said and done, if Google is still what you think you want, the Google Search Appliance is available for purchase directly from the company. Rather, what I think we’re really looking for is to provide our organizations with a more Google-like Experience. I define this as the ability to leverage search technologies that connect people -- directly or serendipitously -- with the right content at the right time from the right place in a way that is simplistic, intuitive and fast.

Going from where we are now to where we need to be might seem like an insurmountable task, but if we start to approach it step by step by following the process outlined above, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to get there. I won’t promise that it will be easy but if we take the time to do it, things will get significantly better and trust lost over time will ultimately be earned back.

I will promise, however, that if we continue to ignore the problem or think we can solve it through the procurement of a new technology, the situation we find ourselves in now will only get worse as time goes by, and our ability to correct it will become considerably more complex and ultimately more costly.

Rather than posing the question why can’t we, we need to ask ourselves how can we. Once we do, we’ll be taking a significant leap in the right direction. As we move toward a better understanding of both our users and content in the context of our organizations, the delivery of an intuitive and relevant Google-like Experience in the enterprise will be within reach.

Editor's Note: Read more articles by Jeff Carr, starting with: SharePoint 2010: Using Taxonomy & Controlled Vocabulary for Content Enrichment