Finding the Right Stuff

The best search engine in the world cannot convert garbage into useful content.

So, before you spend megabucks on the latest cool search tool, think about what repository you’re searching. If your office is anything like most offices, you’ve got tons of ephemera — stuff that probably isn’t going to matter 30 minutes from now — and tons of materials that really ought not to see the light of day. However, a decent search engine has the effect of shining a klieg light on the shortcomings of your content.

In fairness, a great search engine can help filter out much of the suboptimal content, but if there isn’t anything worth finding, what have you really achieved?

One solution is to stack the deck: make sure you put a goodly amount of useful content into your repository before you turn the search engine on. And what constitutes “useful content”? Not just something that someone might possibly need someday. (That’s the sort of rationale the turns a document repository into a cluttered and confusing packrat hell.) “Useful content” is content that is vetted: someone has reviewed it and given it a seal of approval or it’s been used with good results enough times for you to know it’s a great resource.

With that kind of content, you’re going to look like a genius every time the search engine does its thing. How often can you say that about a KM project?

For more information on the benefits of vetted content, see my article “Loading the Deck” in ILTA’s 2007 Knowledge Management White Paper.

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What are People Searching For?

What are people searching for and where are they looking? That’s the question asked and answered in a thought-provoking article in the March 2008 issue of KMWorld. While working with an admittedly small sample, the survey yielded some interesting findings:

– 62% of respondents said that they first search the Internet before searching more specialized resources such as their own company’s website or intranet
– while 13% of the time the respondents said they were searching for information about their own companies, they began their search on their company intranet only 2% of the time
– respondents tended to ask their colleagues for help before they tried their company intranet
– business users spend a lot of time searching for information at work (approximately 9.5 hours per week)
– knowledge workers tend to search using general indices like Google and Yahoo rather than specialized web sites or search engines

The picture that emerges is troubling:

– companies aren’t doing a good job of making their intranets the first choice for company information
– despite the hours spent searching, many knowledge workers are not searching efficiently
– knowledge workers don’t seem to understand the inherent weakness of general web search engines like Google and Yahoo when it comes to finding specialized, high-value content
– searchers tend not to use content aggregators, specialized vertical search sites or topical sites to find data

For knowledge management, these findings pose some real challenges. In many companies, it’s the knowledge management group that’s responsible for the intranet. The findings of this survey are a real indictment of the job we’re doing. So what must we do differently to make our intranets the first choice research resource for our colleagues? It might be worth asking them.

And while we’re talking with them, we should investigate why it is they are using sub-optimal search methods. Is it a lack of awareness about how search engines like Google and Yahoo work? Do they simply not understand that high-value content can get buried in the Web, but will tend to be more visible on specialized web sites? According to the author of this article, people in the online industry know that “the `good stuff’ gets hidden if it is thrown into the larger web grab bag. And very often, it isn’t even in the grab bag because it isn’t indexed.” Clearly the average knowledge worker doesn’t know this or they wouldn’t be using the grab bag search engine.

Despite this (or perhaps because of this), the author notes that there are some signs of progress in the growing recognition of the value of finding high-quality information rather than merely relevant information. As a result, there is renewed interest in recommendation engines, contextual search and vertical search sites. These are “tools that will tell [knowledge workers] what they need to pay attention to in the pile” of information they face. In this age of overload, this sounds like a step in the right direction.

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