woman looking through binoculars
As search grew in importance for organizations, some companies formed search centers of excellence to maintain and improve search results PHOTO: Pawel Janiak

Once upon a time, enterprise search was optional for most organizations. You'd either search in the front-end of the database or in the intranet, where content was organized by department. If you couldn't find a particular document, there was always someone who knew the answer or who had a copy saved locally.

When enterprise search software became available, it seemed like a miracle. Type a word or two into a form and (usually) your document would show up.

The Search Magic Wears Off

Then content started growing. After a dozen years, at least 12 "holiday vacation schedules" and duplicate or near-duplicate versions of policies and procedures and product plans flooded results. Poor content governance highlighted the flaws of loosely managed enterprise search.

Since companies viewed search as a generic middleware, IT approached it like a database or email system. Install it. Configure it. Run it. Ping to make sure it's up.

In other companies, corporate librarians inherited the responsibility for search. Corporate librarians are trained in search, categorization and information organizing for years, so it was a small matter of bringing in some IT resources to get it up and running. The benefit of a corporate library having responsibility is that librarians know content, and are generally thorough and likely to spot incomplete or otherwise mangled information. (Don't mess with corporate librarians.)

But corporate librarians may not consider details like business intelligence, search analytics, security, compliance, customer retention, etc. This is another case where the bigger strategic role of search might go unrealized.

Our criteria for success changed from “is it running?” to "is it delivering the right results to the right people at the right time?"

Along the way, what was once an orphan application managed (part-time) by an IT staffer evolved into a mission-critical application.

As the role of search grew, responsibility for the platform shifted from the IT staffer to the IT manager. And now, innovative organizations are using a "center of excellence" approach.

Related Article: The Benefits of a Search Center of Excellence

Enter Search Centers of Excellence

In the last 10 years, companies started to realize the strategic importance of great search, both on the company intranet and on their public sites.

Fortune 500 companies typically saw their intranets growing to the size that the entire internet was back in the mid '90s. They also saw the direct beneficial impact deflecting customer service and IT help desk questions had on corporate profits. 

Great search saved money.

At the same time, companies selling products on the web realized that without really good search, customers would abandon their site. Web usability consultant Jakob Nielsen found in his well-known 1999 study that half of site visitors would use search if a search box was provided. And we all learned the last thing a frustrated site user often views before leaving the site for another is a poor search results page. 

Great search increased sales.

As management began to read, hear, and discover the importance of search for these two very different kinds of companies, different types of organizations evolved. Companies in both groups started to organize for search success. However, a common element to both was the desire to gather all of the skills required for great search into a single department. These skills, many of which are listed below, include all the skills required to make search great. Modeled on practices used in the early space race by aerospace companies, these groups became known as Search Centers of Excellence.

Search Centers of Excellence Staffing and Skills

  • Executive Sponsor
  • UI/HTML Engineers
  • Business Domain Expert
  • Search Expert Developers
  • Marketing Staff
  • Search Analytics Specialists
  • Project Management
  • Search Quality Assessment
  • Information Architects
  • Business Intelligence Staff
  • Librarians
  • Search Evangelist
  • IT/Operations/Networking Staff
  • Search Quality Specialists
  • Content Experts
  • Financial / ROI Justification
  • Linguistic and Taxonomies experts

Two Approaches to Search Centers of Excellence

Where Search Centers of Excellence (SCOE) fit in a corporate org chart depends on how the organization approaches search.

In companies that view search as a primary way to drive revenue, the manager of the SCOE is often a high-level executive who reports directly to the CEO. The SCOE is charged with implementing search for all brands or lines of business, and typically all staff for search and search analytic management report to the chief search officer (CSO). The SCOE in these companies includes IT and network responsibility for search as well, even if there is a separate IT operation for web operations: the search servers belong to the CSO.

In contrast, corporations that view search as a cost savings measure, have a high-level manager, perhaps at the vice president level, running the SCOE and reporting to the CIO. Like the companies that view search as revenue driver, the SCOE at these companies are staffed with all of the skills required to make search work. This central SCOE may have many project teams that move from project to project within the corporation as divisions and lines of business have the need to implement search. In this model, lines of business may provide the marketing or content staff for each project.

Sometimes these 'cost saver' corporations may organize using a small central SCOE that serves in an advisory role, while operating divisions and lines of business each have their own, potentially smaller SCOE. In these cases, the central SCOE is responsible for tasks like documenting search best practices for the company; documenting successful (and perhaps less successful) search projects; providing centralized vendor recommendations and negotiations; and often offering technical shared libraries and code for search.

Corporations using a distributed model for SCOE may have a wide range of size and capabilities from division to division and line to line in the smaller distributed units. But the successful ones have access to all of the skills a large, central SCOE needs as listed above.

Which SCOE Is Right for You?

Given these choices, the question is "which model is right for you?"

The answer, as always, is it depends.

First, does search work well the way it's organized now? Maybe your IT department runs search, and has done so for years, working hard to understand content, search activity, and corporate expectation and needs. If your corporate library is doing quite well with search, that's great: “if it ain’t broke, don't fix it.”

But if, like so many companies, search isn't working the way it could, or isn't in a position to handle future demands, you should start looking around. 

You can start improving things as an informal project — get in touch with people active with search throughout your company and start sharing information. Conduct your own "best practices" review and inventory where you are doing well and where you might improve. Read newsletters and blogs, talk to vendors, attend trade shows. Remember: Great vendors will educate you, but their outlook may be a bit biased even in the most honest sales teams. You might consider bringing in a consulting firm to oversee the project. Persevere and you will start having small successes. 

And hang in there. Remember, noting ventured, nothing gained.