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Building the Search Center of Excellence

Search is strategic; however, the strategic potential of search is not captured by the act of acquiring a powerful search platform alone. Pioneering firms are now developing a new kind of management approach to help deliver maximum value across multiple search-driven applications: the "search center of excellence." It is a structured approach, utilizing a focused cross-functional team, and it is emerging as a practical tool to drive search innovation and deliver high quality online experiences.

This is the age of search; search is becoming the de facto infrastructure for finding and delivering information. It is ubiquitous in new online business applications, driving revenue and capturing operational efficiencies inside the organization. Any organization whose operations touch the Internet, or important digital information in general, is finding that delivering better search is good for business.

Yet despite the scale and importance of this trend, many companies can't seem to get out of their own way as they begin using search. For example, many firms have fallen into what we refer to as the "one-size-fits-all" technology purchase syndrome. In this mode, the enterprise search problem is seen (at least by the sponsors) as solved as soon as new "enterprise" software is installed on a production server. In such cases, however, the value of the solution often fails to impress users inside the company or customers and partners outside, because it simply does not seem to "get" their particular business situation. This is because the core of all successful search experiences is built on understanding the enterprise business context and the knowledge drivers that power each specific set of business interactions.

One indicator of the challenges posed by this current state of the practice is that virtually all researchers into search quality continue to report user frustration in both external and internal applications of search. Forrester Research, for example, has consistently reported breakdowns in site-search quality. Recent research shows that 58% of 211 websites reviewed through mid-2006 failed to meet basic criteria for site search engine and search interface quality. Failure rates for clarity and presentation of navigation options were in the same range or higher. At the same time, the firm's demographic research finds that findability and navigation are even more important to online site visitors than the quality of information on the site or the range of functions available.

Looking at information breakdown inside the organization, IDC Research has found consistently that the cost of wasted time on the part of professionals searching but not finding information is a major continuing cost to organizations. The most recent 2006 "Hidden Costs of Information Work" report suggests that this cost amounts to $5.3 million annually for an enterprise with 1,000 information workers.

Delphi Group reported that more than 50% of professionals surveyed report being either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the search experience in their firms, while only 15% reported that their firms had an enterprise search strategy in place.

These research examples show that the issues with achieving high-quality search go much deeper than a selection of technology. Some of the problem is clearly related to the legacy of basic keyword search deployments whose fatal lack of accuracy and relevance continues to disappoint users. Most modern platform offerings combine families of advanced linguistic and statistical functions that are more than adequate to deliver highly accurate and contextually significant results in a rich analytic framework with suggestive and intuitive navigation options. We maintain that many of the issues of search quality arise not from technology limitations, but from the unnecessarily limited implementation practices which most firms have resorted to in deploying search.

Fortunately there is a constructive solution to the challenges described above; we are seeing impressive results at a number of firms who are making search quality a priority. Businesses as diverse as Merrill Lynch, Pfizer, McGraw-Hill, Autotrader.com and YouTube are dramatically raising the level of the search experience they offer their online audiences. They are replacing "one-size-fits-all" thinking with a management process that secures business acumen and measured investment strategies at the center of the search deployment. The new focus is on developing core organizational resources and tailored governance capabilities that will deliver business value across multiple search-powered applications.

Search Quality Drivers

Before we describe the approach in more detail, let's take a closer look at the kinds of competitive and business drivers that lead these pioneer firms to deliver best-in-class search.

The Internet has made everyone more demanding when it comes to search performance and intelligence. Customers and employees have all become acclimated to the apparent effortlessness of Web search on MSN or Yahoo! or Google.

Self-service is no longer just for shops or gasoline "service stations." Today it is also the accepted access model for information. Customers and employees now require, as well as expect, self-service tools able to mine all the information sources they should have access to and to deliver relevant results in a familiar and comfortable environment.

Organizations that can deliver the right information at the right time with the right search behavior reap dividends from increased online sales and from empowered employees. In order to gain these returns, information access needs to go beyond the "one box/one button" paradigm and adjust user experiences to match their roles, the context of their questions, their vocabulary and their purchase or work patterns. Users do not want to know about the multitude of different formats being consumed, analyzed, contextualized and personalized for consumption by the search platform—they just want the system "to work" across this universe of information, with the most suggestive and relevant results. The best of these results are, in fact, delivered by composite and intelligent business applications, built on the search platform and engineered to unify views of an arbitrarily complex information "space."

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