Enterprise Search: Disappointing and Annoying Users

April 11, 2008

Sinequa Shines a Bright Light in Enterprise Search’s Darkest Corner

Sinequa published the results of a survey of 200 users of enterprise search (sometimes called Intranet search or behind-the-firewall search). Users are dissatisfied and work in “information grave yards.”

Enterprise search is different from Web search. A Web search system such as those available from Google.com or Yahoo.com index content on the public Internet. Enterprise search indexes information that an organization has on its own servers. The differences boil down to search technology itself. What works on billions of Web pages is not well suited for the content on an organization’s servers. Sure, there are some gross similarities, but security, the diverse nature of the content, and the existence of many versions of certain documents require special functions generally not implemented in a public search system such as Microsoft’s search.live.com. Microsoft, in an effort to get technology suitable for enterprise search, is paying $1.2 billion for Fast Search & Transfer, a company that has asserted leadership in enterprise search. Fast Search’s executives have 1.2 billion reasons to make that claim.

Frustrated searcher

The enterprise sector is an intensely competitive business sector. The definition of the word search itself is fluid and subject to many different shades of meaning. In the last five years, key word retrieval–typing one or two words into a search box–has expanded to embrace point-and-click interfaces. Here’s a point-and-click interface available from Yahoo. Notice the search box. But the most important parts of the Web page are those that contain suggestions, hot links, and information directly germane to a user. In days gone by, this would have been called a portal. Not today. Now these assisted navigation interfaces are called search.

These new interfaces have a large number of moving parts. You can see some of the plumbing in the illustrations accompanying these Entopia and Sagemaker business case analyses published on this Web log. Enterprise search means hugely complex systems that find themselves a cross between a digital Swiss Army knife and a computerized information factory. This combination of very specific tools and a huge, sprawling technical infrastructure make many of these systems expensive and complicated.

Until the Sinequa study, which corroborated the findings in my new study Beyond Search: What to Do When Your Enterprise Search System Doesn’t Work, few people were aware of the growing dissatisfaction with enterprise search systems. A quick review of the analyst reports from well-known pundits and the marketing collateral of competitors rarely talk about dissatisfied users. Vendors like Autonomy and Google may snipe at one another, none of the vendors hint at their systems or even their competitors irritating users, creating dissatisfaction, and forcing employees to find their own search solutions by ordering a Google Search Appliance and saying, “My department will index its own information, thank you.”

What’s Amiss, If Anything?

I see some of the consultants’ reports about search. I don’t recall seeing analyses of installations that have gone off the tracks. I assumed that because the consultants want the vendors as customers, writing negative profiles is not helpful. Vendors are quick to threaten lawsuits if an analyst uncovers a horror story, makes a challenging statement in public, or writes a critical assessment of a product or service. So, common sense chokes off most discussion.

The pre-Web world of easy access to management and independent user groups is gone. Today, some vendors run commercial or quasi-commercial conferences. The idea is that happy customers, resellers, and pet consultants present information about the benefits of search in general and the sponsors’ products in particular. The master of this genre is Microsoft. Its conferences for developers, hardware engineers, and Web 2.0 programmers are multi-day cheerleading sessions. Useful information is available, but there is not much about problems or unhappy consequences.

In the last two or three years, conferences catering to those interested in search, content processing, and related topics have struggled to get substantive case studies on the programs. Speakers don’t want to talk about bad experiences, and the vendors–many of whom buy expensive exhibit space–don’t want to sponsor an event that makes them look bad. The result is that most talks are thinly disguised product pitches. The substantive talks are usually very narrow, academic, or how-to’s.

Now Sinequa comes along and suggests that most users of enterprise search systems are dissatisfied. The company’s data back up my research that reports substantially the same finding. The question becomes, “What’s amiss, if anything?”

A Self-Check Up

I don’t want to repeat the information in the first three edition of Enterprise Search Report or my new study Beyond Search: What to Do When Your Search System Doesn’t Work. I can, however, pull out some of the key points and offer these as a simple check list:

  1. Do you conduct user surveys and ask employees about their likes, dislikes, and needs with regard to your enterprise search system? If you answered “yes”, do you take action and then do a follow up survey, to determine how the change is perceived? If “yes,” congratulations. If “no”, you may be flying blind.
  2. When you run a query, how long does it take the system to return results? If your system is as fast as Google’s or Microsoft’s Live.com, kudos. If your Intranet search system is slower, users may give up and go elsewhere for information. Obviously, when users don’t use the search system, it’s not meeting their needs. In my research, some enterprise search systems return results in a minute or more. That’s too long to make a harried employee wait.
  3. Does your system index new and changed content every few minutes? If you answer “yes”, you are in tune with today’s need for near-real time information. In my work, more than 80 percent of search systems update content on a daily or less frequent basis. These systems don’t have the current information employees require. Keep in mind that most information requests are satisfied with the most recent information, so delays in index updates are one of the major causes of dissatisfaction. Needed information is not in the system and, therefore, not available.
  4. Does your enterprise search system provide its users with suggestions or links to information tangential to their direct query? If you answered “yes”, pat yourself on the back. You are providing a system that makes it easier for some employees to explore or discover information without playing guessing games with a search box.
  5. Does your enterprise system automatically classify information so a user can point-and-click her way through the available information for her security level and job function? If you answered “yes”, take a break and relax. You are in the select few who have implemented a useful content processing function for your system’s users.
  6. Is your system up 24×7 with 99.999998 uptime? If you answered “yes”, you have enterprise-class uptime. Most enterprise search systems are not able to meet this uptime target unless the service is hosted and managed off your premises.

What if you answered “no” to these questions. As the saying goes, “Houston, we have a problem.”

What Vendors’s Systems Cause Agony?

I can’t reveal the names of the vendors with the worst reputation for reliability, financial probity, and performance. (Yes, I have data, but these are available only to my direct clients.) You will find my public reports, this Web log, and my public presentations useful sources of some information that pinpoints who’s on top and who’s not in terms of user and licensee satisfaction.

You can find useful information if you look on the vendors’ Web sites and note the names of customers. You will need to speak with these reference accounts at trade shows or industry meetings. You will find that even happy customers of a vendor will provide useful insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the system.

Unfortunately unless you buy reports such as Beyond Search or Enterprise Search Report, you will find little public information about the flaws of search systems. No software system is perfect. Search is hugely complex, and what I call the industry’s “conspiracy of good news” contributes to the confusion about enterprise information access.

If you want to talk about getting more candid information about a specific vendor, ping me by writing seaky2000 at yahoo.com. We track more than 50 search and content processing vendors as well as a number of tangential technologies such as mobile search, eDiscovery, and content monitoring.

With information access often making the difference between a good decision or a costly, bad decision, enterprise search is no longer a nice-to-have technology. Behind-the-firewall search is a must have in today’s tough financial climate. Without information access, you can’t do most knowledge work.

Now that you know that most users are dissatisfied, you need to take remediating action before it’s too late and your company decides to replace the search system and its manager.

Stephen Arnold, April 11, 2008


7 Responses to “Enterprise Search: Disappointing and Annoying Users”

  1. Enterprise Search: Disappointing and Annoying Users at Financial Portal Content on April 11th, 2008 9:12 am

    […] Original post by Stephen E. Arnold […]

  2. » Pandia Weekend Wrap-up April 13 on April 13th, 2008 8:58 am

    […] Enterprise Search: Disappointing and Annoying Users […]

  3. topspeeds on September 21st, 2009 7:53 pm

    If you want to talk about getting more candid information about a specific vendor, ping me by writing seaky2000 at yahoo.com. We track more than 50 search and content processing vendors as well as a number of tangential technologies such as mobile search, eDiscovery, and content monitoring.

  4. bill on November 28th, 2010 9:01 am


    excellent info, keep it coming…

  5. Pokey on April 11th, 2011 10:27 pm

    That’s 2 clveer by half and 2×2 clever 4 me. Thanks!

  6. Enterprise search and the “conspiracy of good news” « Perfect Search Blog on April 22nd, 2011 6:01 pm

    […] to Stephen Arnold, enterprise search customers are frustrated and annoyed. On the one hand Arnold says, vendors are unaware of the customer dissatisfaction, but when a […]

  7. Enterprise search consumers want performance and precision « Perfect Search Blog on April 29th, 2011 2:50 pm

    […] Arnold recently wrote about frustration among enterprise search users, recommending vendors take off the rose colored glasses and do a self-assessment. Here we have […]

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