Enterprise Search: Confusing Going to Weeds with Being Weeds

November 30, 2014

I seem to run into references to the write up by a “expert”. I know the person is an expert because the author says:

As an Enterprise Search expert, I get a lot of questions about Search and Information Architecture (IA).

The source of this remarkable personal characterization is “Prevent Enterprise Search from going to the Weeds.” Spoiler alert: I am on record as documenting that enterprise search is at a dead end, unpainted, unloved, and stuck on the margins of big time enterprise information applications. For details, read the free vendor profiles at www.xenky.com/vendor-profiles or, if you can find them, read one of my books such as The New Landscape of Search.

Okay. Let’s assume the person writing the Weeds’ article is an “expert”. The write up is about misconcepts [sic]; specifically, crazy ideas about what a 50 year plus old technology can do. The solution to misconceptions is “information architecture.” Now I am not sure what “search” means. But I have no solid hooks on which to hang the notion of “information architecture” in this era of cloud based services. Well, the explanation of information architecture is presented via a metaphor:

The key is to understand: IA and search are business processes, rather than one-time IT projects. They’re like gardening: It’s up to you if you want a nice and tidy garden — or an overgrown jungle.

Gentle reader, the fact that enterprise search has been confused with search engine optimization is one thing. The fact that there are a number of companies happily leapfrogging the purveyors of utilities to make SharePoint better or improve automatic indexing is another.

Let’s look at each of the “misconceptions” and ask, “Is search going to the weeds or is search itself weeds?”

The starting line for the write up is that no one needs to worry about information architecture because search “will do everything for us.” How are thoughts about plumbing and a utility function equivalent. The issue is not whether a system runs on premises, from the cloud, or in some hybrid set up. The question is, “What has to be provided to allow a person to do his or her job?” In most cases, delivering something that addresses the employee’s need is overlooked. The reason is that the problem is one that requires the attention of individuals who know budgets, know goals, and know technology options. The confluence of these three characteristics is quite rare in my experience. Many of the “experts” working enterprise search are either frustrated and somewhat insecure academics or individuals who bounced into a niche where the barriers to entry are a millimeter or two high.

Next there is a perception, asserts the “expert”, that search and information architecture are one time jobs. If one wants to win the confidence of a potential customer, explaining that the bills will just keep on coming is a tactic I have not used. I suppose it works, but the incredible turnover in organizations makes it easy for an unscrupulous person to just keep on billing. The high levels of dissatisfaction result from a number of problems. Pumping money into a failure is what prompted one French engineering company to buy a search system and sideline the incumbent. Endless meetings about how to set up enterprise systems are ones to which search “experts” are not invited. The information technology professionals have learned that search is not exactly a career building discipline. Furthermore, search “experts” are left out of meetings because information technology professionals have learned that a search system will consume every available resource and produce a steady flow of calls to the help desk. Figuring out what to build still occupies Google and Amazon. Few organizations are able to do much more that embrace the status quo and wait until a mid tier consultant, a cost consultant, or a competitor provides the stimulus to move. Search “experts” are, in my experience, on the outside of serious engineering work at many information access challenged organizations. That’s a good thing in my view.

The middle example is what the expert calls “one size fits all.” Yep, that was the pitch of some of the early search vendors. These folks packaged keyword search and promised that it would slice, dice, and chop. The reality of information, even for the next generation information access companies with which I work, focus on making customization as painless as possible. In fact, these outfits provide some ready-to-roll components, but where the rubber meets the road is providing information tailored to each team or individual user. At Target last night, my wife and I bought Christmas gifts for needy people. One of the gifts was a 3X sweater. We had a heck of a time figuring out if the store offered such a product. Customization is necessary for more and more every day situations. In organizations, customization is the name of the game. The companies pitching enterprise search today lag behind next generation information access providers in this very important functionality. The reason is that the companies lack the resources and insight needed to deliver. But what about information architecture? How does one cloud based search service differ from another? Can you explain the technical and cost and performance differences between SearchBlox and Datastax?

The penultimate point is just plain humorous: Search is easy. I agree that search is a difficult task. The point is that no one cares how hard it is. What users want are systems that facilitate their decision making or work. In this blog I reproduced a diagram showing one firm’s vision for indexing. Suffice it to say that few organizations know why that complexity is important. The vendor has to deliver a solution that fits the technical profile, the budget, and the needs of an organization. Here is the diagram. Draw your own conclusion:


The final point is poignant. Search, the “expert” says, can be a security leak. No, people are the security link. There are systems that process open source intelligence and take predictive, automatic action to secure networks. If an individual wants to leak information, even today’s most robust predictive systems struggle to prevent that action. The most advanced systems from Centripetal Networks and Zerofox offer robust systems, but a determined individual can allow information to escape. What is wrong with search has to do with the way in which provided security components are implemented. Again we are back to people. Information architecture can play a role, but it is unlikely that an organization will treat search differently from legal information or employee pay data. There are classes of information to which individuals have access. The notion that a search system provides access to “all information” is laughable.

I want to step back from this “expert’s” analysis. Search has a long history. If we go back and look at what Fulcrum Technologies or Verity set out to do, the journeys of the two companies are quite instructive. Both moved quickly to wrap keyword search with a wide range of other functions. The reason for this was that customers needed more than search. Fulcrum is now part of OpenText, and you can buy nubbins of Fulcrum’s 30 year old technology today, but it is wrapped in huge wads of wool that comprise OpenText’s products and services. Verity offered some nifty security features and what happened? The company chewed through CEOs, became hugely bloated, struggled for revenues, and end up as part of Autonomy. And what about Autonomy? HP is trying to answer that question.

Net net: This weeds write up seems to have a life of its own. For me, search is just weeds, clogging the garden of 21st century information access. The challenges are beyond search. Experts who conflate odd bits of jargon are the folks who contribute to confusion about why Lucene is just good enough so those in an organization concerned with results can focus on next generation information access providers.

Stephen E Arnold, November 30, 2014


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