Lee Romero

On Content, Collaboration and Findability
October 9th, 2008

What is Enterprise Search?

Having written previously about my own principles of enterprise search and then some ideas on how to select a search engine, I thought it might be time to back up a bit and write about what I think of as “enterprise search”. Perhaps a bit basic or unnecessary but it gives some context to future posts.

The Enterprise in Enterprise Search

For me, the factors of a search solution that make it an enterprise solution include the following:

The user interface to access the solution is available to all employees of the company.

This has the following implications:

  • Given today’s technologies, this probably means that it’s a web-based interface to access the search.
    • More generally, the interface needs to be easily made available across the enterprise. In any somewhat-large organization, that means something either available online or easily installed or accessed from a user’s workspace.
  • I would also suggest that the search interface should be easily accessible from an employee’s standard workspace or a common starting point for employees.
    • One easy way to achieve this is to make access to an enterprise search solution part of the general intranet experience – especially on an intranet that shares a standard look-and-feel (and so, hopefully, a standard template). This is the ubiquitous “search box”.
    • Alternately, if users commonly use a specific application (say a CRM application or a collaboration tool), integrating the enterprise search into that is a better solution.
    • Lastly, it might be necessary to make access to the search solution “many-headed”. Meaning, it might be best to make it available through a number of means, including through a standard intranet search, a specialized client-based application and embedded in other, user-specific tools.
  • Given the likely broad range of users who will use it, the search interface should be subject to very thorough usability design and testing.
  • Adopting some of the standard conventions of a search experience are a good idea.

The content available through the solution covers all (relevant) content available to employees

This has the following implications:

  • If your enterprise has a significant volume of web content, your enterprise search should index all of those web pages – either via a web crawling approach or via indexing the file system containing the files (if it’s all static).
  • If your enterprise has a significant volume of content (data) in enterprise applications (CRM solution, HR system, etc.), you should have a strategy to determine which (if any) of the content from those systems would be included, how it will be included and how it will be presented in search results (potentially combined with content from many other systems in the same results page)
  • If your enterprise has custom web applications (and what organization does not), you should expect to provide a set of standards for design and development of web applications to ensure good findability from them and also expect to have to monitor compliance with those.
  • If your enterprise has significant content in collaboration tools (and who doesn’t – at least email!), you should have a strategy for including or not including that content. This could be very broad-ranging – email, SharePoint (and similar applications from companies like Interwoven, Open Text, Vignette, Novell, etc.), shared file systems, IM logs, and so on. At the very least, you need to consider the cost and value of including these types of content.
  • If you have content repositories available to employees (a document management system (or systems!) or a records management system), again, you should consider the cost and value of including content from these in your enterprise search.
  • While it is very useful to have a separate search for finding employees in a corporate directory, I believe that an enterprise search solution should include employees as a distinct “content type” and include them in standard search results page as well when relevant (e.g., searching on employee names, etc)
  • Another major question regarding the content of your enterprise search is security. If you include all of that content in your search, how will you manage the security of the items? The two major options are early binding (building ACLs into the search) or late binding (checking security at search time). If you are not familiar with these, I would recommend you do a bit of internet searching on the topics as it’s very important to your solution. I’ve found some interesting articles on this topic.
    • In my mind, it’s also feasible to “punt” on security in a sense and work to ensure that your enterprise search solution includes everything that is generally accessible to your employee population but does not include anything with specific access control on it.
    • If you can achieve the effect of getting a user “close to” the content (ensuring some level of “information scent” shows up) but leaving it to the user to make the final step (through any application-specific access control) seems to work well.

The Search in Enterprise Search

The other half of your enterprise search solution will be the search engine itself. There are plenty (many!) options available with a variety of strengths and weaknesses. I think if you plan to implement a truly enterprise search, the above list of content-based considerations should get you thinking of all of the places where you may have content “hiding” in your organization.

From that list, you should have a good sense of the volume of content and the complexity of sources your search will need to deal with.

Combining that with a careful requirements definition process and evaluation of alternatives should lead to a successful selection of a tool.

Once you have a tool, you “just” need to apply the proper amount of elbow grease to get it to index all of the content you wish and present it in a sensible way to your users! No big deal, right?

2 Responses to “What is Enterprise Search?”

  1. Can you tell me who did your layout? I’ve been looking for one kind of like yours. Thank you.

  2. [...] I also think that it depends on how you look at it.  As I wrote previously in trying to lay out what I thought enterprise search is, I think that the key aspects of an enterprise search are that it’s available to all members [...]

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