The secret world of enterprise search behaviours

by | Jan 27, 2020 | Digital workplace, Intranets, Search

Thousands of research papers have been published on how users search web applications, either general purpose global web search or more specialized applications such as e-commerce. However there have been very few studies of how enterprise searchers are carried out. I’ve spent the last two decades working on enterprise search projects, looking in detail at search logs, and at research which might not be directly about enterprise search behaviour but which might shed some light onto what is going on.

At my IntraTeam workshop in Copenhagen on 2 March I will be presenting the outcomes of my experience and research for the first time. Based on internal presentations I have given over the last year I suspect that many of these outcomes will come as a total surprise to search managers and cause them to rethink their approach to achieving search satisfaction.  My experience suggests that these outcomes apply just as much to optimizing Microsoft O365 search as other enterprise search application.

I will be starting out with a brief demolition session on 12 enterprise search myths. If you want to see 105 myths in one blog post then read the post by Max Irwin at OpenSource Connections. I’m going to follow this demolition session with a detailed presentation of my analysis of enterprise search behaviours and the implications of these behaviours on how search logs in particular should be analysed.

Let me outline just four important characteristics of enterprise search. The first of these is that enterprise search is additive. What I mean by that is that unlike any other form of search employees are working in an environment in which information is being pushed to them throughout the working day. For any given topic they will already have a substantial collection of information or they would not be able to do their jobs. Search has to either add to this collection or validate the collection they have. This means that the concept of relevance has to be totally rethought.

It is quite common for an enterprise search user not to click on what the software has deemed to be the most relevant document for the simple reason that they already have it. Paradoxically it is very important for this document to be on the first page of results. If you want to know why then come to my workshop!

The second characteristic is that, especially in a global business, employees may be searching in their second or even third language and so lack the range of synonyms that a native speaker will have. In many companies employees will search for ‘concur’ and not ‘expenses’ or ‘travel’ because they are looking for the entry page for the SAP Concur expenses management application.

A third characteristic is that content will be security trimmed. Two people working alongside on the same project may be presented with a different set of results because they have different security profiles. Looking at a query log for examples of search terms that have few or zero hits in order to improve search performance is not a trivial task because the query terms might lead to documents that are deemed sensitive. Indeed so sensitive that the search team may not be aware of it!  

The fourth characteristic is that Boolean is far from dead. Inside the organization there are likely to be roles where recall is absolutely essential. A good example is in pharmaceutical companies where a drug might have multiple brands across different companies. This need for recall is now being defined as ‘professional search’. Read the proceedings of the  First International Workshop on Professional Search (10pp download) for an insight into this use scenario, which puts paid not only to ‘Boolean search is dead’ but also ‘precision is everything’

As I hope you can judge from just these four characteristics these are generic enterprise search characteristics and challenges though the solutions may be different between O365 search and other search applications. At my IntraTeam workshop I will be explaining other characteristics, how you can spot them from analytics and what steps you can take to address them. My guess is that you will rethink your entire approach to enterprise search delivery, become a search hero and gain the everlasting gratitude of your organisation at all levels. Not only will you walk away with this fresh understanding but a very useful set of slides and a document that explains in some detail the secret world of enterprise searchers.

Martin White