Should your enterprise outsource search?
Many IT professionals and Webmasters expect search to be baked into their existing applications. What's delivered is a search soufflé that disappoints.
Those responsible for Web site search are beginning to seek a foolproof recipe: enough flexibility to meet a Webmaster's demands for features, easy deployment and customization, and a range of pricing options.
Solid choices for hosted search are available from WebSideStory, a public Web analytics company that purchased Atomz in May 2005; Blossom Software; Fast Search & Transfer (FAST); and CrownPeak. Each has made progress in visibility during the last 12 months.
WebSideStory will crawl your site and store your information in a remote database. When someone enters a query in the search form on your site, the WebSideStory server application receives the query, formats the results and sends them back in an HTML form with links directly to the pages on your site.
Blossom Software, which offers a similar service and some of the lowest cost solutions on the market for hosted search, is a 5-year-old company founded by a former Bell Labs scientist.
FAST, a major player in the Fortune 500 market, is coming off a record year in customer acquisition and profitability, and putting more emphasis on hosted search for 2006.
Other hosted search options are growing out of content management systems, like CrownPeak, which introduced its proprietary-hosted search solution in 2005.
Webmasters often start with the easiest path, such as presuming Microsoft has the best plan, and then moving to hosted solutions for search. Ben Vivante, Webmaster for the town of Brookline, Mass., says, "We used to use the search service that was included in the original version of Microsoft Internet Information Server [IIS]. When we upgraded IIS, the search function was changed. We did a workaround—a hack actually—to use the older IIS's search. The Blossom hosted service allowed us to free up resources for other important jobs."
Steve Kusmer, co-founder of Atomz and now senior VP of search and content solutions at WebSideStory, is one of the pioneers in hosted search. "Hosted search is simply a better way to deliver customer satisfaction," he says.
Hosted search is for Web sites
The term "search" can be applied to many areas of a company's IT infrastructure, but hosted search is essentially a Web site search solution maintained and operated by a third party.
Hosted search is now being added to the menu of technology options in many organizations. Customers are buying. For example, Atomz (founded in 1998, now part of WebSideStory's Active Marketing Suite) and Blossom Software (founded in 2000) boast 360 and 250 customers respectively.
Curt Anderson, owner of Municipal Web Services, says, "Hosted search is ideal for public facing Web sites. I'm not sure about using a hosted service behind the firewall, but the concept makes sense."
The customer gets access to a full-featured search system with such bells and whistles as categorization, query expansion, concept search and sub-second response time without the hassles of a local deployment.
Hosted search, until recently, has had a low profile. But the complexity and cost associated with managing a highly complex, specialized staff with IT generalists is winning adherents every day. Pensions & Investments, a Crain Communications publication based in New York, relied on a proprietary search solution and found that it was slow and produced inaccurate results.
"We switched to the CrownPeak hosted service, and we have had nothing but positive feedback. It was the smart thing to do. There was no incremental cost to us." says David Klein, Webmaster for pionline.com.
To a Web site visitor, the hosted search solution looks like it resides on the server delivering a specific Web site. The search interface and features such as automatic query expansion have the look and feel of the hosted search licensee's Web site.
Stirring the recipe of change with Webmasters and marketers is that the features available from hosted search vendors match those available from such vendors as Autonomy/Verity, Mondosoft, Endeca, and Convera—systems typically deployed on the licensee's own servers.
Hosted search deployment requires less time than delivering Web site search with the Google Appliance or the Thunderstone Search Appliance. (See the sidebar for information about plug-and-play search appliances.)
The hosted search solution requires almost no setup and configuration characteristic of the search solutions included with the Microsoft SharePoint server or an Oracle database installation.
"Search is an application that needs constant attention," says Bjorn Laukli, FAST's senior VP of Solution & Customer Services, "More and more system administrators are discovering the complexity and infrastructure challenges."
Five years ago, FAST introduced its Managed Care Hosting Service. Laukli says, "Customers want a good search experience without the overhead that comes from deploying a new service themselves. We are specialists in search, and most of our customers have many other applications to support. Besides applying search best practices, we provide the best hosted practices from many years in the industry." The diagram on page 10, KMWorld May 2005, Vol 15 #5, illustrates that indexing, query processing, relevance ranking and results generation occur on the hosted search vendor's server. The licensee of a hosted search solution receives the request for a document and then delivers the requested content to the user. Hosted search vendors deliver second or sub-second response time, handle mirroring, index updating and managing an infrastructure tailored to deal with the spikes in demand that go hand-in-hand with search. Besides applying search best practices we provide the best hosted practices from many years in the industry."
Outsourcing, according to the market research unit of IDC, generated revenues of about $533 billion in 2005 and is likely to grow at about 7 percent a year through 2009.
Estimates prepared by ArnoldIT.com for CMSWatch's Enterprise Search Report in June 2005 put the worldwide search market at $1.5 billion worldwide in 2004. Hosted search represents less than 15 percent of that amount, according to Dennis Jacobi, a partner at Quantum International who worked on the market estimate for the second edition of the report. He adds, "Hosted search is small today, probably in the $200 million range and growing at 15 percent per year."
Jacobi adds, "There's definitely growth ahead for hosted search because outsourcing is growing and more companies are discovering that operating their own Web site search system is not a judicious use of scarce IT resources."
The acquisition of Atomz points to the interest in hosted search add-ons for content management companies and the like. Atomz was snapped up last year by WebSideStory for $4.3 million in cash and 3.1 million shares. In fact, Blossom Software, CrownPeak and FAST reported that interest in their hosted search solutions is gaining strength.
Breaking free: bringing flexibility to search
Why the growing interest in hosted search? Consider Municipal Web Services, a company focused on providing Web support and services to city, state and national governments. With more than 60 sites to maintain, MuniWeb needed flexibility.
Solid Choices for Hosted Search
Company Blossom Software
Starting Price $240/year
Special Features Synonym expansion, real-time index updates, query term highlighting. Supports enterprise and intranet search.
Representative Clients Municipal Web Services, San Diego Natural History Museum, NOAA
Starting Price $15,000/year
Special Features Customized search results, relevance ranking, integrated Web analytics
Representative Clients Hyundai Motors, Hospital Corporation of America, State of Virginia, Crain Communications
Company Fast Search & Transfer (FAST)
Starting Price $20,000/year
Special Features Faceted searching, automatic categorization of documents, ability to handle billions of documents
Representative Clients Elsevier Science, Vodafone, UPS, Accoona
Starting Price $15,000/year
Special Features Customized search results, tight integration of advanced Web analytics and search, support for public Web site access and self-service customer support
Representative Clients Bloomingdales, Brooks Brothers, Verizon Wireless, Walt Disney, Victoria's Secret