Search Is Lost Without Found

By Marc Solomon posted 05-29-2013 14:01


I went to Information Today's Enterprise Search Summit last week in New York City. This year's edition featured a buzz-rattling shout-out to Big Data. Big D sat on the sidelines despite the excess ballroom capacity under the enterprise search tent.

It was hard to separate the low turnout from the resonating message in the search trend and survey results tracks. User satisfaction levels are stagnant or declining as solutions for this maturing market continue to evolve.


It's easy to blame Google for raising user expectations to a level not scalable on any other platform, or frankly any planet really. The analogy goes something like:

  • Google = Ocean where we hardly break the surface (Adwords comprised of top feeders).
  • Intranet = Puddles of pond scum (barely get our heads above water).

However the overriding message at the show did not contain Google or comparing platforms of scale but the simple assertion that Search is an unsustainable business on its own.

As Hitachi Consulting VP of its Microsoft Platform Practice Shawn Shell pointed out, every kid likes to be lost about as much as every parent likes to be searching for their missing child. In his evocative discussion about "Findability, Not Searchability," Shell drew some common lessons around losing track of a child on a shopping trip:

Do I want to map out each false lead? Do I want to take every fork in every road split? Do I really want to revisit this ordeal?  Or do I just want my kid back?

Shell's sense of how searches compromise us plays out well beyond our enterprise platforms:

  • When you're booking your next flight are you really searching? Or does the certainty of an outcome make it more about finding the shortest layover than exploring the constrained world of airline reservation systems?
  • When you're coming up with vegetarian options for your next client lunch, do you cherry pick a bunch options by cuisine, price ranges, and star systems? Or do you paste in the address of the place nearest where you pick up your dry-cleaning because you know an easy cut through?
  • Even the search industry doesn't sell the head of HR on the thrill of the chase. It's the confidence of knowing that a suitable candidate will be delivered to that vacant, corner office. It's the strain of the pursuit that the search firms are paid to make disappear. No such resolution is forthcoming on an enterprise search result screen near you or me. 

Not every search fits a cookie cutter action-outcome scenario. There will always be a basic research imperative for the discovery side of search. There's a reason that sky-cracking brainstorms don't open in the middle of workflows. It's because they're time-resistant, if not defiant of sequential procedures. Circles have taken their lumps lately. I blame the vanishing rotaries on a preoccupation with linear expression -- a bias that tends to favor causality at the expense of circuitry.

Whatever inspires you to search there is widespread agreement that search is not meant to inspire more searches but bias the outcome towards more actions.

Some of us get the impact of structured vocabularies on the uncollected thought strings of our colleagues. But this fetish protects us from a more foundational truth: Going back to Shell's example, most people hate search because they're in an interim state of pure guesswork. That uncertainty is housed within the condition of being lost. We can grumble all we like about this:

  1. Maybe if they had paid more attention in document 101 they'd know where to download the latest version of something more certain?
  2. Perhaps if they posted their best stuff and tagged it, the mystery of finding it would die with the questionable quality of the outdated material they’re replacing?
  3. Either way the outcome is clear: It's a compromised position when you find your plate full and your results page empty. 

It's hard enough for our users to know where their stuff lives. Now they have a search tool much more effective for reinforcing that point than for filling in their knowledge gaps. It’s sobering to know that my interest in taxonomies and metadata has blinded me to the realities of search. But if that’s the case maybe it’s also true that my industry hasn't really lost its way -- not when it's been operating as the Lost Industry all along.

#survey #usersatisfaction #metadata #taxononomy #tradeconference #userexperience