migrating storks
PHOTO: Gareth Davies

If your business still using a Google Enterprise Search Appliance (ESA), the clock is ticking on finding a search platform replacement

Many alternate platforms are of course available, but the challenges of a search migration really begin after you've chosen your new solution. Unfortunately search migrations are more than just a swap in, swap out scenario.

With an intranet, businesses can use static wireframes to get a good sense of the potential UX, but search requires more than a pretty face. Search application success depends on delivering relevant results. 

4 Major Search Migration Challenges

Four elements of a search migration can easily crush any hopes a business may have to transform the search experience and create positive business impact.

1. Content Clean-up

Many organizations view implementing a new search application as an opportunity to clean up content, either by deleting low quality content or adding additional metadata. 

Both are good ideas, but will have the result of changing the relevance rank of documents. In a perfect world, this should delight users but with search in particular, you may see more than a touch of Search Stockholm Syndrome. 

The current search solution might have many weaknesses, but users will have developed strategies to get around those weaknesses, such as working out query term combinations to get to specific documents. Following a content clean-up, their workarounds may no longer function and their standard queries might surface different content.

2. Ranking Models

The secret sauce of all search vendors is their ranking algorithm. Search has made much progress since the TF.IDF (term frequency-inverse document frequency) approach developed in the 1970s. 

Not only BM25F and BM25+, which rank according to the best match, supplemented TF.IDF, but the current generation of search applications use a wide range of natural language processing techniques. This is especially the case with entity extraction. 

Many vendors also offer learning-to-rank options based on machine learning that should improve ranking performance through tracking which results are clicked on and opened. If you want to get a sense of the options, take a look at the many Funnelback ranking algorithms. Charlie Hull, managing director and founder of Flax, gives advice on team support for relevance management that should be required reading for anyone working in enterprise search.

3. User Interface Design

Search is a dialogue between the user and the application. The user interface has to support this dialogue, especially with exploratory searches where the user may not know what query terms to use. 

Far too many search interfaces present a substantially longer list of facets than results. In cases like this, the search team is clearly grasping at straws, hoping at least one facet will be of value. 

Presenting users with both a new ranking model and a new UI at the same time may just create a perfect storm scenario. One of my clients is developing a UI that works for both the current and the planned search application, so it can be optimized under controlled conditions and to reduce the training required at launch.

4. Search Support Team

Managing the three migration elements above will be a full-time occupation for your search team, assuming you have one.  

All too often, IT departments manage the installation and initial implementation of a search migration and then hands it across to the business. This is the wrong approach. Ideally, the search team is closely involved with the specification and fully involved in the installation and implementation. 

The vendor needs to transfer a very high level of knowledge to the team, and the team needs to feel fully involved in shaping the overall UX. The challenge here is finding and training the search team members will probably take longer than any other aspect of the project. Starting a program of search metrics (especially search satisfaction) at this point will help show the business the migration has delivered to expectation.

Your Search Migration Plans Start Now 

The moment you decide in principle to replace a search application, the migration planning needs to start. Search is so important to the business that if it fails to deliver on expectations on release, trust in the application will quickly erode and it could take months to recover. 

Businesses should not only carefully consider the topics above, they should also create a communications plan that keeps everyone (and remember that search will be used by all employees) up to date on the new search solution, the benefits it will provide and how you will support the transition from legacy to new solution. 

It's never too early to write up the migration project plan. The challenge to the organization is they've probably never faced this problem before.