Some Free Advice for Search Vendors
Over the last few years there has been a very significant increase in the awareness of the value of search. It may not yet have translated into an equally significant increase in sales of search products, whether proprietary or open source, but this could be the best year yet for search if vendors heed some advice.

Many organizations have been totally unaware of the power of a good search application, especially if they were using Microsoft Search Server for SharePoint 2010. With SharePoint 2013 they are discovering what they have been missing for the last decade and also beginning to realize that even SharePoint 2013 is not the answer to all their search requirements.

The good times are about to start for search vendors and search integrators. I’d really like to see a thriving search industry as it enables me to tell my clients that they have a number of options they could consider. Sadly the search industry seems to excel at obfuscation and a total lack of understanding about how organizations go about finding search solutions.

I am vendor-neutral in my advice so with regret I am not able to advise search vendors on marketing and sales strategies. Instead here is some free advice to the entire industry.

Understand Your Potential Customers

Most companies have little experience of buying search applications. Faced with the opportunity to “check out entity extraction, business rules, relevancy workbench, integrated search UI and more,” I wonder how many senior IT managers will understand what entity extraction is all about, the value of a relevancy workbench and the benefits of an integrated search user interface. Far too many search vendors are selling their solutions based on functionality and not on initially getting across the business benefits of search in a way that supports the investment case.

Sort Out Your Website

I’m not going to name names, because the list would be too long, but the lack of focus and clarity on vendor websites is terrible. The concept of personas is alien to the industry with the result that home pages are a mixture of search buzzwords and technical jargon. The search market is international but at least one major search vendor gives contact telephone numbers without a country code, or any indication of support outside of the US.

Above all, make sure your website search is an exemplar of good practice. When I type "shard" into the search box of a company supplying Apache Lucene and Solr solutions I don’t expect to be asked if I meant to type "share."

Be Honest About Search Implementation

Far too many vendors want to create the impression that implementing search can be carried out in a very short period of time by a couple of experienced developers. It might be able to be installed with those resources, but not implemented!

I have yet to come across any vendor that sets out what is actually involved in implementing search (especially in replacing a current search application), including the need for business involvement right from the start and indeed forever afterwards. Some indication of typical implementation timescales and the support expected from the customer in terms of skills and user requirements analysis would be of considerable value.

Budgets Need Numbers

As far as I am aware only dtSearch publish a price list. Most vendors provide no information at all, even an indication of whether the application is priced on a per server, per document or per person basis. I appreciate that companies are concerned about giving price information away, but isn’t it ironic that vendors of products based on open source code are so closed and proprietary about pricing.

Potential customers want to know if the application (or support for an open source application) is going to be of the order of $10,000, $100,000 or $1 million. Even a comment that “Organizations with between 3000 and 6000 employees based in the USA are typically entering into contracts of between $75,000 and $125,000 for the initial year.” That does not inhibit negotiation but might reassure IT managers used to the budgets for an enterprise ERP application!

ROI and Productivity Improvement

Making a business case for search is a complex exercise. When all a vendor can offer is a simplistic ROI business case example built round some very dubious post-hoc numbers about time saved, then you know they are not in the real world of justifying a search investment against a list of other enterprise requirements. There is no research evidence to justify the claim that a faster search is a better search. 

2014 could be your best sales year yet, but only if you see the selection and implementation process from the view of an IT department with little or no experience of managing search applications.

Title image by alexskopje (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more of Martin's thoughts on search in Search Continues to be Business Critical in 2014