Why All Search Projects Fail

5 minute read
Martin White avatar

My heart sinks when I see an email arrive that starts “We are about to start a search project and we need some assistance. Can you help?” At least with an email I have an opportunity to prepare a creative reply. When the telephone rings with the same question, then the challenge of delivering sad news in a kindly and constructive way is significantly greater.The sad news is that all enterprise search projects fail. Here are just a few of the reasons why.

Project Plans are Built on a Zero Information Base

Project plans involve defining work packages, deliverables, risks and milestones.In the case of most companies no search project has ever been attempted before and so there is no corporate knowledge of what the work packages might be and what skills and resources might be needed to undertake the project.

Usually there is recent corporate memory about CMS implementation or ERP migration projects but these have little bearing on the design of a search project. The end result is that the project plan is no more than a work of inspiration and fiction. 

Undeliverable Deliverables

Project managers spend a lot of time writing a Project Initiation Document (PID) that sets out what will be delivered. In the case of a search project that is often about “delivering improved search satisfaction” or “enhancing search performance.”

Both of these are very desirable goals but no one (least of all the project manager) has any idea of what the current level of satisfaction is with search and what is a reasonable metric for improvement.

The idiom “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it” applies to search as much as to anything else.If the project is IT-driven then there is a danger of focusing on technical performance (server utilization) or at best increasing the number of searches, but neither will generate long-term benefits.

Content Quality is Not in Scope

Without good content quality no search engine is going to deliver quality (trustworthy) results.If you search for Marmite on the Unilever UK public website, two of the results in the first ten are duplicates of two others and three of the titles are Microsoft Word -- Document 1.

However working on content quality improvement (and nothing improves search more quickly!) is usually out of scope as no one is every quite sure who is responsible for content quality or even for defining what is in scope to be crawled and indexed.

Search Does not Exist in Isolation

Search interfaces with a great many enterprise applications. Websites, SharePoint, document management, social media, business intelligence... the list is endless. Fixing search without understanding how search in other applications is being managed is a waste of effort.

This is going to be a major challenge for SharePoint users upgrading to SharePoint 2013.The SharePoint upgrade project will almost certainly have to take a view on search which could have implications for a number of existing search applications.

The Resources Vanish when the Project is Completed

For a few months a number of skilled people find a small amount of time to work on search log analysis, carry out some typical searches and make some changes to the user interface. Then the project comes to a conclusion and the team members go back to their day jobs.

Learning Opportunities

That usually coincides with users starting to wonder why the results they now get bear no resemblance to their experience over the last couple of years and indeed the relevance seems to be worse, not better. They email the project manager to ask what has been changed, only to find that the project manager (with some relief) is now working on the ERP project.

Search requires a support team. There is no option.

The Business Objectives Change

A couple of weeks after the end-of-project celebrations the company acquires a new business or sheds an existing one. Everyone knows that if the new business is not well integrated within 100 days then the benefits will be lost. The business has been acquired because of skills and knowledge and yet the challenges of indexing the new content, and/or creating a federated search application, have been totally overlooked in the process of acquisition and merger. In effect each company is invisible to the other.

A Search Program has a Better Chance of Success

If the company is not willing to fund search at a sensible level as a requirement of staying in business then a program approach has merits. A series of inter-related search projects managed within a program office is a far better option than one time-limited search project.

However in the end search has to be seen as a strategic corporate-wide initiative with realistic levels of investment. In my opinion that is going to happen sooner rather than later, and is likely to be accelerated by the Board wanting a “Big Data solution,” by the arrival of SharePoint 2013 and by a feeling that now might be a good time to go open-source.

Are you prepared?

Editor's Note: This is but one of a series of articles by Martin on Enterprise Search. Check out his Search in 2013 Will Become a Business Critical Application for more insights

About the author

Martin White

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.