In Search Lessons (part 1), I highlighted the most common of requests from customers thinking about, or in the middle of, deploying enterprise search solutions:

¨We want our own search to be as good, if not better than, searching the Internet. Our people are used to Google.¨

Part 1 focused on the top challenge created by this request: Internet pages want to be found. The same can rarely be said for intranet pages and documents. This post looks at the second (and related) challenge – differences in search behaviour.

Search vendors have not failed to notice what organisations want when it comes to search. Google will happily sell you one of their search appliances – hey, it’s Google but on your intranet! Microsoft will happily sell you SharePoint that comes with a dedicated Search Center… that looks like Google! (Well, looks like which looks like Google).

The trouble is, when people say they want their company search to work just like Google, it’s not really what they want. Our search behaviour on the Internet is very different to what we do on the company intranet. We want the ‘experience’ to be the same (i.e. simple user interface, comprehensive index, quick results ordered by relevancy) but we are working in a completely different environment. It’s the equivalent of putting a frozen ready-meal into the microwave and expecting it to come out tasting like something prepared fresh.

Internet Search

When you choose to go to the Internet to search for information (assuming you start at a standard search page), you have a set of expectations. Type in a few words, click Search and be presented with a pile of results, neatly ordered with the most relevant matches to your words (according to the search engine) being listed at the top, along with some sponsored ads. Scroll down the list, pick a result you like the look of and click on it. And off you go into the murky depths of Internet web sites…

Your relationship with the Internet search engine is a pretty thin one. If you don’t like the results, you can always go somewhere else. If the sponsored ads annoy you, you can go somewhere else. That relationship goes both ways. You didn’t pay to access the search engine, you got the results for free. Beyond hoping that you might click on one of those sponsored ads, the search engine doesn’t care what you do with what you find. It doesn’t make any guarantees about the quality of the results returned or the accuracy of the content they contain.

Intranet Search

When you go to search for information on an intranet, you might think you have the same expectations as performing an Internet search. But the reality is usually much different. There are a whole host of different reasons for performing a search. Those different reasons also apply to the Internet, but your behaviour regarding the results changes when you are looking at internal company information.

Different types of search query:

  • Need to find answers versus Researching a topic
  • Need to find the answer versus Need to find an answer
  • Know it exists somewhere versus Don’t know if it exists at all
  • Looking for self versus Responding to others

When you are looking for answers, there is usually a time element involved. There is certainly an accuracy element. The Internet offers no guarantees about accuracy, it worries only about speed and matching relevancy (don’t confuse relevancy with accuracy, SEO concerns itself with the former, not the latter). Your intranet doesn’t have the same luxury – those results will be used in whatever task you happen to be performing that required the search in the first place. And some tasks take accuracy demands to the next level – not only must the results be accurate, but your search engine must provide ‘the’ answer not just a list of possibilities. If you have to pass information on to a customer, chances are you don’t have a ‘Get out of Jail free’ card if you get it wrong. Trying to blame an Internet search engine won’t get you very far, but your IT department will probably be hearing from you if your intranet search lets you down.

The key difference between Internet and intranet search is that Internet search engines don’t have to concern themselves with what you do next, what you do with the results you find. They don’t make any guarantees about the quality or accuracy of results returned. It’s why you get the occasional anomaly. Recently, a search on ‘George Bush’ would return ‘idiot’ as the top result. For some key words, for example ‘Jew’, Google has resorted to inserting explanatory notes at the top of the results page because anti-Jewish pages were being optimised to dominate the top of the results list.

Intranet search doesn’t have the luxury of shrugging its shoulders if you don’t like or trust the results. They have to provide guarantees about what you find because the results are an integrated part of a bigger task.

So, yet more reasons why achieving a Google-like search experience on your intranet is no mean feat. Step 3: Understand search behaviours and how results are going to be used within (and beyond) your organisation. Tune your search and results pages to help people complete tasks, not just find links to ‘stuff’.

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