Many people find it very difficult to understand why search within an organization can’t “just be like Google”. This is often because they haven’t thought about the differences between an organization and the Internet.

Your organization is smaller than the Internet

Search engines like Google work because they have access to big data. Google gets billions of searches to process, from billions of users. Even if your organization is a large one, it won’t have that many users either searching or contributing content, so it cannot number crunch on the same scale as Google. Your IT department is probably a lot smaller than Google’s and your enterprise search team’s daily budget is unlikely to cover more than the tiniest fraction of what Google spends. Last, but by no means least, your organization doesn’t have as much content as the Internet, so it probably needs to be far more careful about not losing any that is valuable.

Surfing the net is not many people’s job

There are important differences between how and why people search when they are at work and when they are not, and between how and why they search the Internet and their organization’s Intranet or archives. People rarely surf their organization’s Intranet for fun, to be entertained, or to while away the time. The differences in serious research behaviour and leisure searching are well documented, so I am going to write about another aspect of differences between the Internet and organizations that is often overlooked.

Putting stuff online is not the same as writing a business report

There are vast differences in the ways that people create and curate content on the Internet and within an organization. These differences have a significant effect on the way search functions. The key difference is in how much they link their content to that of others. Of course, there are people whose jobs are to create and curate online content – all the web editors, content strategists, copywriters, social media marketers, etc. – but they will be the first to explain that they have a very specialised set of skills focused on making their content searchable, commercial, or otherwise user friendly. They do a whole lot of things that most people as part of the day job neither know how nor have the time to do.

Links are a form of Knowledge Organization that Google gets for free

One of the key things that web professionals and unpaid web enthusiasts do with their content is to add and manage links. Links are what organize the web. Links are what group sites into clusters by content. Links are the web’s classification scheme. Clay Shirky back in 2005 said “there is no shelf” but it makes just as much sense to think of millions of shelves – infinite shelves going off in all directions, with new ones being created and old ones being discarded. The web is not linear – like a shelf – but it is not without structure. Google effectively picks one of the near infinity of shelves and offers it up as a linear list whenever you do a search. It chooses the shelf that seems to be the most popular, or that fits its commercial model. First on the shelf is often a paid-for advertisement or a Wikipedia entry, followed by other big well-established commercial sites. Out there on the Internet, people do an awful lot of shopping, and not much work, so that’s fine. (If they are doing more shopping than work when they are at work, your organization probably has bigger problems than search to deal with.).

For many other searches, especially more thematic research, people would be disappointed with the results, were it not for the magic of the way the web works – the links. As long as Google slings a site at you that has lots of links to other sites, it doesn’t have to take you straight to what you want, it lets you and the links do the rest of the work. Links gather together similar content, so they function like a classification scheme. The links associate content that is aimed at similar audiences, is on similar topics, is of a similar age. The links represent a huge amount of sorting, cataloguing, and classification work. Google did not have to pay for this work (genius business model). People do this work for Google for free. They do this work as part of creating and curating their content.

Many of Google’s volunteer librarians do this work for fun. They create fan sites, they write Wikipedia articles, they produce lists and generate indexes to their favourite content. They provide cataloguing descriptions and context. They do all this work partly because they enjoy it and partly because they hope to get “repaid” by their site becoming popular. They hope this will either lead to monetary reward (their band will get signed, they’ll get a better job, they’ll sell advertising) or social reward (they’ll make online “friends”, get positive feedback from comments, etc.).

From the commercial angle, people do this work because they expect to gain financial reward. They want to sell more products and make money. This is why there are howls of pain whenever Google tweaks its algorithms. Companies that balk at investing in internal search systems will spend fortunes chasing SEO.

Are your staff content curators?

If you want your organization’s search to be “just like Google” you need to think about how linked your content is. Do people who create content in your organization do so for the same reasons and with the same motivations as people create and link content on the web? It is very unlikely that you have lots of “fans” who will spend their free time creating lists of your companies’ best information resources, or collecting and rating and reviewing reports and documents. Most employees are too busy getting on with their day jobs to spend office hours pursuing their “fan” projects. Even if your staff have plenty of spare time, how many of them are big enough fans of some aspect of work to treat it like a hobby? If you want people to start looking out for similar documents on your Intranet and linking their own documents to them, you will probably have to find ways of motivating them to do this as a special initiative. It is not likely to come “for free”, like it does for the web search engines.

For some organizations, encouraging and incentivising “fan”-type behaviour may work. If the organization already has a strong collaborative culture, with people sharing ideas and using social media, it may be a small step to get them to think of their documents and presentations as blog posts. Including content creation and curation in people’s job roles and rewarding those who do well will foster a link-rich Intranet. By recognising and rewarding people who promote useful links and lists and get them to rank highly in your enterprise searches, you could bring an element of gamification to encourage this sort of behaviour. For other organisations, the culture may support this kind of web-style content creation, but people are generally too busy, have skill sets too far from what is required, or need training and encouragement. In such organizations it may make sense to have the equivalent of web editors, content strategists, user experience specialists, search engine optimizers, etc. working with the organization’s internal content to promote the most valuable resources. In other words, layer of “linkers” who work alongside the content originators.

For other organizations, where it would be inappropriate, too time consuming, or too far from established culture to encourage web-like information behaviour, enterprise search will never work “just like Google”. More formal and standardized metadata management processes are likely to be needed. Organizations that generate a lot of very specific content that is unlikely to be useful in broader contexts, confidential content, or large volumes of very similar structured content are likely to find it hard to move away from directed and standardised searching.

Many organizations will have a “mixed economy” with different types of content and different departments operating with different styles (e.g. what works in a marketing department is unlikely to work in the same way in a finance department).

Without links, search is a lot of dead ends

Without links, each search result is isolated. This stops the searcher in their tracks and means they cannot surf in the way they do on the Internet. They will have to check search results one after another in a linear fashion. If your search engine is not getting the most relevant results to the top of that list, your staff will be spending a huge amount of time working their way through that list. They cannot plump for one likely looking result then follow the trail of links, as they do on the web. The links as a form of classification do not exist, so you need another mechanism (taxonomy, ontology, index, directory) to help people find groups of related content and browse through from one document to another.

So, even though you may have the technology and the budget to match Google’s, unless your content creators are linking freely, you will never completely succeed in turning your Intranet into a mini-Internet.