For better or worse, Google has taught most internet users how to search. And for these people, search is a kissing cousin of playing the slots in Vegas: Punch in a few keywords, pull the lever, and pray for a jackpot. Even when there’s not a huge payout, most people have been conditioned to accept what economist Herb Simon calls "satisficing" results (somewhere along the spectrum between satisfying and sufficient). With Google’s recent introduction of "universal search" in which book, news, image, and video results are now interspersed with webpage results, I suspect most people will become even more complacent and tolerant of "OK" results when searching the web.
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Enterprise searchers, by contrast, are a far more demanding mob. They don’t want "good enough" results, let alone a link to the latest home video from the organization’s new marketing intern. Rather, they want facts, figures, and other data, and furthermore, that data had better be accurate, up-to-date, and, in many cases, secure and accessible only to those who have a need to know. In short, enterprise search needs to be industrial strength, appealing to and satisfying an entirely different set of information needs than what most web searchers require.
That isn’t to say that Google isn’t up to the task of enterprise search. It clearly is. The company offers several enterprise search products and services, and boasts an impressive list of customers for these. But tellingly, despite its impressive dominance in web-search market share, Google’s enterprise offerings lag in marketplace acceptance behind market leaders Verity, Autonomy, and FAST. Enterprise search is a tiny part of Google’s overall business mix, where it’s at the heart of the Big Three enterprise search vendors.
Search of a Different Feather
Enterprise search and web search are fundamentally different animals, and I’d argue that enterprise search won’t—and shouldn’t—be Google-y any time soon. The adjective "Google-y" is used internally at Google to gauge whether products or services are intuitive, easy-to-use systems that largely cloak the underlying machinery of the search engine from the user. But there’s a more subtle nuance to being Google-y—the term also implies nearly total control by the company over how a search system works. Google, in its own corporate mind, knows best, and it is highly reluctant to cede control to anyone who might think otherwise.
Like web search, Google’s enterprise search is easy to use—if you’re willing to go along with how Google’s algorithms view and present your business information.While there are administrative tools provided, Google’s enterprise search largely lacks business-facing management tools, which are standard components in other vendors’ systems. For small to medium enterprises with modest information management needs, this may be sufficient. But for larger, more complex enterprises, this means that customization of a Google enterprise search requires significant development work and expense.My Way or the Highway
The Big Three work with demanding customers who want far more extensive control over how their enterprise search systems work. And these customers are less concerned with delivering up the clean, consumer-friendly results that Google web search is famed for. Rather, they want the right information delivered to the right people with little fuss.
Furthermore, most enterprises don’t just have a single search system; often they rely on multiple platforms that must play well with incompatible legacy databases or content management systems. Google’s approach to search began with a clever approach to harvesting the collective knowledge of people who built content on the web, using link analysis as a form of uber-metadata that revealed the documents held in greatest esteem by webmasters. Enterprise search systems largely lack this type of metadata, and must rely more heavily on more traditional information retrieval techniques, such as semantic analysis, data mining, analysis of data structures, and so on.
Mix-ups and Match-ups
So web search and enterprise search are, in many ways, like oil and water: noble substances on their own that don’t mix well.
Ironically, Google’s dominance in web search has created a problem for enterprise search vendors.While information workers are generally comfortable using more complex interfaces to find what they’re looking for, Google’s simplicity has also revealed a world where search is "easy." C-level executives ask, "Why can’t our enterprise search look and feel just like Google?"
And of course, CIOs can’t just fall back on the oil and water simile without resorting to a lot of technical jargon and seemingly lame gesticulation. A better approach would be to segment the types of enterprise search where a Google-y approach works best:
Online commerce. Google’s own AdWords system was designed as a lead generation system, and the various tools that the company has built around this platform deliver superb results to online merchants, not only in search leading to ultimate conversion, but in providing valuable analytics data that are pure gold to ecommerce organizations.
Media and consumer-facing enterprises. Given Google’s strengths in integrating various types of content into a single universal search output, organizations that need this multidimensional approach to serving enterprise information needs would find a good partner in Google.
Intranet search. Many organizations are encouraging employees to communicate internally via blogs, or to participate in community-based knowledge repositories such as internal wikis. This is one area where there is a genuine parallel between enterprise information systems and web content, and Google excels at understanding and surfacing this type of content.
High and Low Search Points
Of course, there are many other areas where a Google-y approach would work well. But the bigger question is whether enterprise search firms should be concerned with making their own products more Google-y. Probably—but that means not just catering to the lowest common denominator searcher, but in strengthening the "other half" of the Google-y equation by focusing on the strengths Google brings to the party: security, internal controls, customization, and adaptability with existing information systems and content repositories.
Google has done us all a huge service in opening up the web and making it easily accessible to virtually anyone. But the expectation that it has created—that search should be easy—is something of a false promise, especially in the enterprise environment. For simple needs, simple search is wonderful, especially when it comes to searching the chaotic, unstructured mess of information that is the web.
Ironically, enterprises, with all of their highly structured and carefully organized silos of information, require a very different and paradoxically more complex approach. In the short run, enterprise search cannot be Google-y, as the needs of the organization are too varied and highly idiosyncratic, with information systems often unyielding to simple queries and simple "results." Even in the long run, it’s going to be difficult for enterprise search to be too Google-y, until we reach a level of sophistication that Google itself envisions one day: when computers are as smart and easy to interact with as HAL in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey—only they don’t kill anyone.
About the Author
CHRIS SHERMAN is the executive editor of SearchEngineLand.com and president of Searchwise LLC, a web consulting firm based in Boulder, Colo.