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How businesses should deal with enterprise search issues

Enterprise search issues frequently complicate user experience with CMSes. However, these challenges have various solutions to help organizations improve their search experience.

For all its benefits, enterprise search is difficult to get right.

Enterprise search is the way businesses retrieve structured and unstructured data generated and stored within the organization's repositories. It lets users easily access information and use existing content assets, saving them time and the company money and avoiding the risks of creating inconsistent information assets.

All too often, the necessary information is not there or takes too long to surface. Managers and employees alike want to avoid this so they can spend more time acting on what they find, instead of issuing multiple search queries.

Just as enterprise search is hard for more than one reason, there is no single way to solve its problems. Solving enterprise search issues involves pinning down the toughest pain points and finding their solutions.

If a business wants to improve enterprise search, it should consider the following issues.

1. Commitment to supporting enterprise search

Organizations often fail to properly understand the level of ongoing commitment an enterprise search environment requires at the start of their search strategies.

Enterprise search requires daily support from a team dedicated to governance, including maintaining metadata standards, keeping crawls on schedule, staying on top of security policies and troubleshooting issues. Search is an ongoing investment in employee productivity, so organizations must plan for this level of commitment from the start.

2. Incorrect or incomplete metadata

Enterprise search issues are not entirely the fault of the user, system administrator or poor methodology.

Organizations can fall into the trap of thinking they know enough about a technology, such as enterprise search engines, to implement it without engaging with users beforehand. In this case, the users or IT teams who run searches are not in sync regarding the appropriate metadata tags or synonyms. Any metadata or search project requires engagement with business experts, or the organization risks an expensive fallacy.

For example, businesses must know why some keywords are relevant to finance, while others are relevant for HR. If the metadata is wrong, it affects search results. Employees can help with that, which would shape the metadata used to track, organize and find content. They can also help determine what synonyms make content findable in a search engine.

3. User expectations

Another enterprise search issue is that users often do not understand how it works. Google gives them exactly what they're looking for, so they might wonder why enterprise search engines can't do the same. This is because enterprise search works differently than major commercial search tools.

Commercial engines learn usage patterns across millions of users and billions of web pages and adjust their search indexes accordingly. Enterprise search engines, on the other hand, require meticulous metadata tuning to achieve comparable results because user behavior patterns and the amount of data crawled is much smaller compared to an engine like Google.

4. Security

Some content in a content management system (CMS), such as financial records, personnel records or core intellectual property of an organization, is private, sensitive or otherwise entitled. Often, organizations want to crawl this data and make it findable only to authorized users. In doing so, businesses must ensure the content does not leak to unauthorized users as they search. In some cases, business leaders might determine the content should not appear in searches at all.

Content managers should plan early in an enterprise search project how to comply with information security rules, including a strategy to define and implement permissions and controls.

5. Crawl errors

Businesses must crawl their content to properly index it. A crawl means the search engine must access the content to extract its embedded links.

Sometimes, the crawl, which should be done often to find new content, experiences errors. When this happens and users do not realize it, content goes unindexed and is unfindable. An enterprise search support plan should include flagging and addressing crawl errors.

6. Multiple versions

Different versions of the same documents are inevitable in a business, but they can badly clutter search results. Content managers should enable version control and tune the search engine to avoid serving up multiple versions as if they are separate search results. This ensures users can always find the most recent version.

7. Unstructured data

Modern CMSes store more unstructured data than ever before, owing largely to social media, but also including stored email and text messages, presentation files and audio content. This data is hard to find because it might not fit within any data model.

In this case, the content creators must be involved to help develop some structure for organizing the most important and relevant unstructured data. This structure could include external metadata, file folder organization or title formatting to empower better findability of this content.

8. Vendor fails

Enterprise search issues are not entirely the fault of the user, system administrator or poor methodology. Sometimes, enterprise search engine vendors can overhype their products or create tools that are too complex to maintain, which creates tension between them and their customers.

Even key products in enterprise search, such as those from Microsoft, Apache and Elastic, can fail to provide adequate visibility into search fails, crawl fails and indexing issues. Few products offer administrative documentation or troubleshooting resources that accommodate the full range of enterprise search file types, source incompatibilities and use cases.

Getting it right

Businesses have many options to solve common enterprise search issues:

  • Train employees on search best practices. If businesses provide employees with an overview of the engine, including how it works, how to query properly and what guidelines to follow for effective metadata tagging, then employee experience improves along with the system's quality.
  • Use metadata as business intelligence. Businesses should treat the creation and use of metadata as a digital asset. This improves search functionality and increases the metadata's value.
  • Apply version control. If content in intranets and repositories has version control, content managers can limit the appearance of duplicate results by tuning search crawling to understand which versions to display.
  • Embrace the rule of least privilege. The database administrator's standard for balancing access and privacy can also secure content in enterprise search: Grant users the minimum permissions required to do their work. Apply the same principle to enterprise search security in the CMS.
  • Unstructured data and metadata. Unstructured data streams in from social media, email and other sources and gets dumped into the CMS almost randomly. If a business tags content accurately and conforms to its metadata standards, it does not matter that data does not conform to a model. When a business conforms to this strategic tagging approach, users can easily surface all data, including metadata.
  • Be open to coding. Even the best enterprise search products will not have every feature out-of-the-box, but their APIs give IT teams opportunities to create necessary features.

Editor's note: This article was originally written by Scott Robinson and expanded by Jordan Jones.

Jordan Jones is a writer versed in enterprise content management, component content management, web content management and video-on-demand technologies.

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