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Selecting an Enterprise Search Engine

Search engines are one of the most critical tools in any Knowledge Management (KM) platform. A well implemented enterprise search engine enables easy access to information and breaks down silos between teams. Given the importance of search engines, it is important to select the right tool. An enterprise search engine is an investment that will last for years. A bad choice can be costly and will derail KM initiatives for years.

When our clients ask us for help selecting a search engine we begin the conversation with enterprise search best practices and considerations in these six areas: 

  • Community/Support,
  • Past Performance,
  • Features,
  • Cost Model,
  • Integration, and
  • Proofs of Concept.

Community/Support

Organizations are creating new content and new repositories all the time. This means that your search engine implementation will need regular support, beyond the initial design and build. You want to select a tool that has a strong support community and many affordable support options.

As you evaluate search engines (both open source and commercial) investigate the online support communities. How active are they? Can you easily get answers to your questions online, or do you need to work with the software vendor? A strong support community makes it easy to get help when something doesn’t work as expected.

Online forums are helpful, but sometimes you need an expert. Software vendor professional services organizations can be expensive. You want to ensure that you have options for external support. Check out job sites like Dice and Indeed to understand the market for independent contractors. Also, find out what boutique firms are out there and what their rates are. This information will help you understand how many support options you have with your search engine.

Past Performance

Developing the user interface for search is easy and often very specific to an organization. The real challenge in implementing a search engine is the indexing. Before picking a search engine, make a list of the systems and sources containing content you will be indexing (we call this our search repository listing). As you are evaluating vendors, ask them to provide references of other organizations that index similar repositories. Interview the references to understand how easy it was to index content from each repository. This is a great way to understand how well the search tool will work in your environment. It also gives you a potential resource to call upon when you have issues or surprises.

Features

The search engine market is quite mature. Nearly every search engine has all of the most common search features that you need for your site. This is why open source options like Solr and Elasticsearch are so popular. While open source is a common option, it does not mean it is the only option. The commercial search engines all have specific features that set them apart. Features like SQL support or the need for hierarchical indexes point to solutions like Attivio or MarkLogic. Cognitive search features are found in tools like Sinequa. Don’t waste your time creating a long list of requirements. Instead, identify the unique features you need to determine if you need a commercial tool. If you do not have specific needs, you can select your solution based on the other criteria in this blog post.

Cost Model

Be very careful of the cost model for your search licenses. Most search engine vendors have a low entry price, but the cost rises quickly as you add documents or increase the number of searches. Make sure you understand how your costs will grow when your search implementation is successful. Develop a pricing model that will show you how your costs will increase as more content is added to your search tool.

Integration

Increasingly, enterprise search is only one facet of the overall “findability suite.” For your organization, this suite may include taxonomy and ontology management tools, auto-tagging, semantic analysis, and triple stores. Selecting the enterprise search tool that “plays well with others” is an important component to ensure forward compatibility with a highly dynamic market. Find out from the vendors of the other tools in the findability suite, which search engines they work with. This will make integration much easier.

Proofs of Concept (PoCs)

PoCs are the most important way to evaluate your search engine. During the PoC, focus on indexing your various repositories, looking at the admin consoles, and doing things like boosting specific search result types. Make sure that someone from IT works with the vendor so that you can understand how hard it is to do each of the items in the PoC. Also ensure that your business stakeholders are heavily involved, to ensure the PoC proves out the usability and business value of the tool and the related concepts you’ve prioritized. 

You may have to pay for the PoC, but that makes sense. You will be stuck with whatever you pick for quite a while. A little money up front is worth it to make sure that you select the right tool.

Before placing a massive investment in time and resources, take the time to make sure the next search engine you purchase is the right one. Reviewing the six areas above will help ensure that you select the search engine that best fits your needs and you have an affordable solution that can grow with you over time.

Closing

If you are looking to replace your search engine, we can help. Our search workshops can give you a great start on your search replacement project. We will begin by taking you through the six elements above, allowing you to leverage decades of enterprise search consulting and development experience to ensure you’re focused in the right place. Learn more about the Action-Oriented Search workshop here.

Joe Hilger Joe Hilger A senior technologist with expertise in search, content management, and unstructured information. He focuses on creating solutions that have a meaningful impact for his clients. More from Joe Hilger »