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The Magical Answer to Making Intranet Search as Awesome as Internet Search

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magic intranet searchingWe use search every hour and every day of the week, and it is awesome because it just works.  Every day you use Bing, Amazon, Google or Siri and you never stop to think about why the topic, result or document that you are looking for came back on top.  It just feels so easy - start typing or talking and automatically Google or Bing starts providing you suggestions to whatever your question may be.

So why then, when you go to work the next morning and you must find a specific file, manual, document record, graphic or image within your organization, does search not work?

What invisible barrier stopped you from getting access to the right document?  What happened to auto suggest? Why is there no easy way to filter out results like if I was doing a product search and only wanted to see the 40” TVs at Best Buy or Amazon?  What happened?

The invisible answer is metadata.

For the Bings and Amazons of the world to make money, they need you to be able to find the right information or products.  So besides building some of the largest search indexes in the world, they have a person or teams of people who are responsible for metadata.  In fact, the whole SEO industry came about since metadata and web page optimization are needed for a site to be found. Metadata is information about information.  It is what allows you to select the type of car you are searching for by brand on Autotrader as well as the year, color and model.  The same goes for Best Buy when searching for TVs by size, manufacturer and screen type.  There is no “magical metadata fairy” that goes into the computer and sprinkles metadata onto each product.  The metadata is actually hand crafted by a person who has specifically built out a vocabulary and determined that this type of metadata is needed, on this type of product, and the value to the customer is that they will be able to find it (if there is a specific product) within a couple of seconds by just selecting a box or two on the left hand side of their browser that will quickly filter a set of results to the size, manufacturer, budget and/or whatever else the owner of the site has decided is relevant.

There is not a set and forget mentality. The company knows that you need to apply good metadata to content if you want happy users who will spend money on products.

So, what happens when you go into the office?  Most likely nothing, and that is the problem.  While search has been set up and there is an index of results that show if you type in a query, there has been no time spent nurturing a company’s vocabulary to assist the users with finding the right document.  98% of the time this is because there is no metadata or if there is metadata, then it is not descriptive metadata.  Why is there no descriptive metadata? Because nobody is willing to take the time to make it work.  The problem is that Bing, Yahoo and Amazon are not going to assign their people to fix your metadata problem.  And one of the key problems is realizing that what works outside the firewall will not work inside the firewall. In fact, the work outside the firewall often involves individual pages, while inside the firewall things get more challenging because the documents exist in many formats and are dispersed across different repositories with little or no linkages to other content, with a lot of key information in each.  Not fixing this problem is costing organizations millions of dollars in lost productivity. In addition to lost time trying to find information, there is duplication of effort and re-creation of work already done rather than reusing what has been created.  You need to assign people (more than one) to build out your company vocabulary.  This should be done as a reiterative process, but in the end, it will allow you to build a vocabulary that aligns with your company.  The internal search engine will be able to leverage it consistently and it will improve search. 

Okay, we did all that, and enterprise search still is terrible.  So why did we do it?

Well, step one is building the vocabulary, and step two is getting people to apply the vocabulary to their content.  Did the Amazons and Bings do this?  You betcha, because they have to - it is in their best interest.  So how do we get end users to tag their own content?  One suggestion would be to gamify, make a simple game to get users to add five tags for a reward.  The more content that is tagged, the more reward for a department, with a special prize to the best tagger.

However, we all know that this is still tough, because it is still a mountain of a project that requires a lot of manual effort.  Well, if you agree that metadata is critical, then what the Amazons and Bings also do is auto tag.  They have tools to auto apply metadata to content.  Is it perfect?  Nope.  Is it faster and more consistent then manually doing it, you betcha!  Is the trade-off worth it?  In 80% of the situations, yes.  That is what you will have to decide once you have realized that there is no magical way to fix search, but with a little time and effort, your organization can have great search too by just building a vocabulary and adding a little metadata. 

While Bigfoot, Yeti and the Lochness Monster are all fictional characters and will never be found, metadata is the real deal and is already here.  Metadata is data about data.  Metadata improves search and can drive findability across your enterprise.  Good finding!

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Guest December 12, 2017