Good Search Is Good Business

Where have the last 10 years gone? I set up Intranet Focus Ltd. in the fall of 1999, pretty much the same time as I started writing a column for EContent. The past decade has seen a lot of clients, a lot of columns, and, luckily, a lot of invoices. I can't say that the first couple of years were easy, but gradually the momentum built up.

By 2001, I found myself working for a major financial institution in the U.S. at which 52% of the employees reported that the intranet search engine was virtually useless (and the other 48% were not exactly complimentary). From then until around early 2008, my work was mainly intranet strategy and CMS/EDMS selection projects, but over the past 2 years, search has returned to the fore of my consulting agenda.

I have to admit I am somewhat surprised (though of course delighted) to be in a position to write this column. A year ago, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the global financial situation looked incredibly gloomy. I recall walking around London and seeing the queues outside of branches of the Northern Rock bank and feeling very concerned indeed-particularly as a one-man business-as to whether I could survive the deep recession that was forecast to be imminent and long-lasting.

Surprisingly, this year has been my busiest ever. Talking to colleagues who also run small consulting practices, this seems to be the case for everyone. Regarding intranets specifically: As organizations lay off staff, they need to ensure that those who remain can find information. The fact that essential information may walk out the door is causing many to invest in their intranet operations. Not huge amounts, but at least more than the zero-level budgets common for the past several years, even in large organizations.

In addition, the importance of providing effective search is being recognized at last. Almost every intranet strategy project has had a substantial search element to it, and I've worked on several in which search has been the primary focus. There are always risks when extrapolating from a few projects and a few more conversations, but I see some trends emerging.

SharePoint has helped, because organizations that have invested in SharePoint implementations have discovered the limitations of its native search application and need to find a fix that does not require waiting for SharePoint 2010 to become a defined and stable product. Google has helped, because although its search appliance works well in many situations, I've come across several implementations where the search manager feels helpless to get the best out of the appliance because of its limitations.

Above all, people are recognizing that what they can't find will hurt them, especially as the recession turns to recovery. My sense is that the recession has been a great leveler between competitors. They now realize that when the green shoots do start to appear, the speed with which they can take advantage of emerging business opportunities is significantly dependent on their ability to manage information, which means being able to find it in the first place.

The search engine vendors seem to be finding their feet. ISYS Search Software tells me that the last fiscal year has been the second best in the history of the company, with a lot of interest in OEM and infrastructure deals. The ISYS name might not be visible but the income certainly is. This year's launch of Wolfram Alpha is also notable, as is the launch of Microsoft's Bing. Search vendors continue to invest as much as they can in research, and I am also very encouraged to see the quality of the open source offerings that are built on Lucence and Solr, with iFinder being just one example.

Despite what I see as encouraging signs in the market, there are still two problem areas. The first is that organizations do not understand that a search investment that does not have a committed support team is wasted. The second is that the vendors seem not to be able to communicate clearly what their search application can do for organizations and remain fixated on how many file types they can index. I have recently seen some appalling tender documents where it is clear the vendor has not understood what the prospective customer is trying to achieve, but just wants to drown them in functional frivolities. However, that is good news for search consultants. The next decade looks like it will be as much fun as the last, as the search for business advantage continues.