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Commentary: The search goes on

With close to 100 products and services in the marketplace and a dizzying array of technologies, it's tough for buyers to find the right engine for them.

Commentary: The search goes on
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET
October 31, 2002, 4:00AM PT

By Paul Sonderegger, Senior Analyst

Most companies already own a search engine--one that doesn't work.

Companies of all stripes are currently shopping for new information retrieval technologies. Recent buyers include Lands' End, which replaced its old search engine with EasyAsk to boost sales; BEA Systems and Fidelity, which both installed InQuira to improve customer service; and National Semiconductor, which replaced an OEM product on its intranet with Google?s Search Appliance.

With close to 100 products and services in the marketplace and a dizzying array of technologies, such as clustering, ontologies and natural language processing, it's tough for buyers to cut through the noise. Fortunately, there is a simple path through this complex landscape.

• Start by understanding your users. Professional researchers such as corporate librarians and government intelligence agents have sophisticated search skills. For them, there are products like ClearForest and InXight. Most everyone else has poor search skills and limited understanding of the subject matter they need to find. To support typical usage patterns, optimize for search engines that deliver results with two-word queries and compensate for common misspellings.

• Consider your content. The most important factor is breadth. If your site covers a limited topic like wine or medical conditions, you can benefit from products that use ontologies to understand concepts. Consider engines like those from InQuira and iPhrase. Broad content, like the repositories of a multinational corporation, requires the brute-force number-crunching that comes with Verity or Recommind.

• Screen for specific features. Even after finding a search engine with the right basic approach, some companies must still satisfy special needs. For example, newswires and financial data feeds need real-time indexing from companies such as Fast Search & Transfer or Autonomy. Retailers and marketers that want to control which offers float to the top of results should turn to providers such as Endeca and Jeeves Solutions, which offer tools to create and manage business rules.

• Conduct a shootout. Even a search solution that uses the right basic approach and offers all of the critical features that a company needs may fail in practice. The only way to know if an engine will work is to test it with your content and users. Fortunately, search companies have already become accustomed to providing a proof of concept.

Special report

Does the search engine's power pose a
threat to the independence of the Web?

In order to evaluate results, recruit customers, employees and partners. Observe them as they try to accomplish their goals. Watch whether or not they can find the content that they need to complete their tasks and how many attempts it takes for them to do so.

• Understand the return on investment. Search software costs include licensing, implementation, maintenance and the hardware to run it on. Verity's average deal size for licensing and implementation alone is $385,000, and enterprise deals can run into millions. Balance these costs against the realized gains and avoided losses that come from successfully resolved searches.

For sales initiatives, successful searches lead to measurable events like purchases and generated leads. In customer service efforts, look at cost savings like averted call center contacts--a 10 percent increase in resolved self-service queries reduces the average cost of online service interactions by 13 percent.

© 2002, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.