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Best Practices - Enterprise Search


While forward-thinking enterprises are deriving great value from enterprise search, other companies are losing both customers and insight by disdaining it.  At a minimum, companies should move to Standard Practices; large online retailers and media companies need to be at the Best Practices level.

  Worst Practices Standard Practices Best Practices
Viewpoint "We don't need it." "It helps our customers." "It lets us see into our customers' minds."
Strategy Search is not necessary -- customers can navigate to what they want Search is a shortcut that helps customers find what they want; increases cross-selling and up-selling Search is a customer-enterprise conversation; search analytics offer insight into customer desires
Process Searches are not analyzed Searches analyzed infrequently Searches analyzed daily or weekly
People Searches are not analyzed Employee analyzes searches infrequently Content expert analyzes searches regularly
Technology No search box or a search hyperlink must be clicked; no search analytics Search text box; multi-line results; rudimentary search analytics Search text box, sometimes integrated with navigation; search results are categorized

Enterprise Search: An Overview

Enterprise search is the second half of a two-part search application set. Web search engines such as Google and MSN -- as well as ads delivered within these search engines -- drive visitors to a specific Web site. Enterprise search then takes over, helping visitors find information and products on that corporate Web site.

Consequently, enterprise search differs from Web search in some ways.

  • The search universe is smaller -- an enterprise search engine must catalog thousands of products or documents, rather than billions of Web pages.
  • The information can be better “tagged” -- because companies know their product lines and information, they can add characterizing metadata that makes it easier for the underlying search engine do its work: tagging a blouse as the color “pink,” made of “cotton,” and a “size 6,” for example.
  • Visitor characteristics are sometimes known -- perhaps the customer has to sign in, or the employee must logon to use the corporate intranet. A better understanding of both the content and the user can go a long way towards making the search results relevant to the user.

Yet, both enterprise search and Web search have some things in common:

  • Search is an explicit statement of customer desire -- when customers enter a search term, they are declaring their interest -- they are looking for something specific and want to jump to it, rather than click down multiple levels to find it.
  • Search highlights a customer’s vocabulary -- when a customer looks for “notebook” on a computer retailer’s site -- and the vendor calls it only a “laptop” -- it is a hint that the vendor might want to add the extra term.

Against this technological backdrop, companies have adopted a variety of approaches to enterprise search: from making it a part of a comprehensive content management and customer analytics strategy to not using it at all.

Best Practices

Enterprises determined to wring the greatest value from enterprise search -- such as and Lands’ End -- view it as both a customer-friendly tool and an analytics application. Certainly, search helps visitors find what they want on the Web site quickly -- thereby increasing customer satisfaction and company sales. These companies typically use sophisticated search solutions that do not just list search results, but instead categorize the results, or suggest, “If you’re interested in that, you may be interested in this.”

However, equally important, is the insight these companies gain by analyzing search queries. As mentioned before, search makes explicit a customer’s desires and vocabulary. All of a sudden, the corporation has another tool for monitoring customer behavior. And the results are often surprising to those inside the company. Customers look for products the company offers -- but call them by a different name and so never find them on the Web site. Or, customers look for products or information the company has never carried -- and the strategic question becomes, “There’s clearly demand -- should we offer this?” Put another way, search becomes a way to have a behind-the-scenes conversation with customers -- without the enterprise work or customer aggravation of customer surveys.

To leverage this insight, these companies make reviewing the search analytics results a part of normal business. A content expert, familiar with the business and the Web site, regularly watches for failed search terms as well as customer interest trends and takes the appropriate steps -- adding synonyms and suggesting changes in content mix, for example.

Standard Practices

Companies taking the middle road often neglect the analytical possibilities of enterprise search; instead, they focus on its operational capabilities -- its ability to give customers a shortcut to what they are looking for. These enterprises reap the rewards of increasing cross-selling and up-selling, but miss the opportunity to optimize the customer-enterprise dialog. In short, they typically view search as a tick-off item -- “We have it, that’s done, let’s move on to the next tool or problem.”

Worst Practices

Many companies, typically smaller ones, do not even offer enterprise search. Although the vast majority of the Fortune 500 offer search on their Web sites, there are exceptions -- for example, Conseco, Nucor, and the Omnicom Group.

Other companies work at hiding it, demanding that users click on a hyperlink that takes them to a search text box, rather than letting users perform a search from the home page. Examples include Boston Scientific, General Motors, and Paccar.

Companies that rarely fall into this Worst Practices category are large online retailers and media companies -- with thousands of offerings, they know that visitors will get lost trying to click their way to the appropriate product or article. Interestingly, some of the companies that do not offer search on their Web sites are the very companies that sell enterprise search solutions -- examples include EasyAsk, Endeca, InQuira, iPhrase, and Mercado.

In any case, whether they hide search or do not offer it, these companies are losing customer revenue and insight, compared to their peers.


As a rule of thumb, one-third to one-half of visitors will perform a search during a Web site visit. Given that the financial and technological barriers to implementing enterprise search are virtually non-existent, there is no reason that a company should refuse to offer this capability or make it difficult for its visitors to find.

In short, no company needs to remain in the Worst Practices category. Although high-end software solutions can cost tens of thousands of dollars and take weeks to implement, there are Application Service Provider (ASP) alternatives that are free and can be implemented in minutes. Two examples are Atomz Express and Google SiteSearch, which are implemented by signing up for the service and pasting some pre-defined code into a Web page header or footer.

Whether a company should work to move from Standard Practices to Best Practices is less clear. In many cases, depending on the Web site’s purpose and size, a search text box and an uncategorized list of results fit the company's business need and available resources. Enterprises that may want to consider moving to the next level are customer-centric small and medium-size businesses that are willing to invest money and analytics time to better compete in their markets.

Enterprise search capabilities continue to get better and less expensive all time. Companies that do not take advantage of this market evolution do so at their own peril.

August 2004

© 2004, Ballardvale Research. All rights reserved. Reproduction without the express written consent of Ballardvale Research is strictly prohibited. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect the analystís judgment at the time and are subject to change.

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