When the carmaker announced that it was replacing Firestone tires on all of its vehicles, consumers stampeded the corporate Web site in search of information that went beyond the typical product sheet. Over the following days and months, Ford and search partner Ask Jeeves not only fielded thousands of searches a day; they recorded and analyzed the queries on the fly in hopes of improving the service, a practice that continues today.
"The Ask Jeeves reports are used in two ways," according to Joyce Mueller, a consumer e-marketing manager at Ford. "First, to evaluate the site design and understand what content people are having trouble finding...Second, to learn what people are looking for. Currently, the majority of our searches are not for our main vehicles, but for other information such as the SVT (Special Vehicles Team). This helps us prioritize enhancements to the site."
In the field of customer intelligence, search analytics is poised to become a star. Examining search queries is now the preferred way for corporations to analyze Web site activity, to make sites more responsive and profitable. The method has all but replaced earlier techniques such as click-stream analysis, in which companies attempt to follow a visitor's journey from page to page.
Although experts agree that corporate search analytics is an important tool, some say it remains somewhat limited, much like an enterprise search itself.
Recent reports have shown that corporate searches generally do a poor job connecting users with the information that they seek. In a telling gauge of the performance gap between enterprise and consumer search services, for example, Google's Webwide search was better 52 percent of the time at finding information on a corporate site than the site's own search engine, according to a Jupiter Research study released in February.
Does the search engine's power
threaten the Web's independence?
"(A) site search is the single greatest opportunity to learn from--and influence--customer behavior," according to the Jupiter report. But "site operators have barely established tangible metrics for evaluating--and optimizing--their search implementations. With the secret of success wrongly attributed to the 'magic' algorithm, and little measurement or optimization, site operators have vastly underrealized their investments as they continue to underserve their visitors."
The Jupiter study examined the effectiveness of so-called outward-facing enterprise searches, or queries that site visitors make. Another study looked at internal corporate searches--queries by "knowledge workers" of their company's own resources--and found the state of the art similarly lacking.
Knowledge workers spend 15 percent to 30 percent of their day searching for information, according to IDC. But more than half of their online searches fail to turn up the desired information. IDC estimated that a company with 1,000 knowledge workers wastes at least $6 million every year spending hours on fruitless searches.
A handful of search analytics upstarts, including Stratify and iPhrase, are hoping to turn this problem into an opportunity, challenging longtime enterprise search providers with increasingly sophisticated and user-friendly analytics technologies. The window may be closing fast, however, as incumbents are working hard to bolster their offerings with better analytics features.
Corporate search stalwart Verity acknowledged that it is playing catch-up with built-in analytics and said an "out of the box" analysis tool will ship with both of its search products by the end of the year. Verity's search application, purchased four months ago with its, already comes with analysis capabilities that the company will add to its own product.
And companies that already have a built-in analytics tool are bolstering their technologies. Last week, iPhrase updated its corporate search tool with more powerful analytics software.
"The analytics piece is really important, and for the most part, it's where the big companies fall down," said Matthew Berk, an analyst with Jupiter. "It's a good differentiator. But increasingly everyone will have it."
Wading through the morass
Industry analysts say the answer to today's search quagmire is a sophisticated analysis of search queries, and that the means to achieve it should be built into an enterprise search application rather than added onto it.
"The trouble with what incumbents like Autonomy and Verity are doing is that, unless you have specific analytics built into the product, you can't possibly manage it," Berk said. "And unless you pay ongoing attention to whether your search results are accurate and useful, you might as well have thrown away your money."
Another analyst agreed that integrated search and analytic products are better than trying to add capabilities to a basic search tool.
"Many of the older companies will tell you that they do it, but the question is, how much work do you have to do with what they give you?" asked Laura Ramos, an analyst with Forrester Research. "The newer, younger companies like Stratify, InQuira and iPhrase are paying a lot more attention to analytics. The incumbents have the capability, but you have to engage them in professional services or do more work to get a shadow of the results."
Autonomy says its technology goes beyond what the search analytics providers promise. The company, with an office in Cambridge, England, and another in San Francisco, specializes in automated characterization and categorization of information, giving organizations the ability to link large numbers of related documents to other resources.
"You would use our technology to do the automatic categorizing," said Kris Marubio, Autonomy's vice president of marketing. "Then you would get someone else to do the analytics. We're the underlying infrastructure."
Marubio cited the company's relationship with Business Objects as an example of how Autonomy's technology provides the fundamental information aggregation that third-party analytics and business intelligence software can then exploit.
Business Objects, a 13-year-old company headquartered in Paris and San Jose, Calif., licenses Autonomy's software and includes it in its business integration portal to provide analysis tools for search behavior, among other data sources.
Another enterprise search vendor that licenses some analytics capabilities from other companies is Jeeves Solutions, an enterprise division that Ask Jeeves is said to be trying to sell. Jeeves Solutions last week upgraded its JeevesOne product to Version 3.0, with changes to its analysis tools.
Jeeves opined that, in the case of search analytics, it was better to buy, or at least rent, some components of its analytics software.
"The reality is that these tools are very sophisticated and complex," said James Speer, Jeeves Solutions' director of product management. "We want to provide a complementary solution. We don't want to reinvent the wheel. Unfortunately some of the vendors are going down that road, which is a dead-end road for the customers."