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The cost of ineffective search

By , Network World
January 23, 2007 01:27 PM ET

Network World - A company that employs 1,000 information workers can expect more than $5 million in annual salary costs to go down the drain because of the time wasted looking for information and not finding it, IDC research found last year.

Think that’s bad? A survey this month of 1,000 middle managers found that more than half of the information they find during searches is useless.

There seem to be no shortage of enterprise search applications that help companies find information hidden within their networks. So why are searches so ineffective?

It turns out, analysts say, that most enterprises are not using the most up-to-date search applications. Not only that, enterprises aren’t using the applications they have as effectively as they should.

“They’ve never invested a whole lot in it,” says Matthew Brown, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. “Companies will spend lots and lots of money on architecting portal systems, intranets, dashboards and databases and everything else. Search, typically, for internal applications, companies don’t spend a lot of time on it.”

As much as 10% of a company’s salary costs are wasted on ineffective searches, the Butler Group, an IT research and analysis organization reported last October. Richard Edwards, who co-authored the 240-page report, says a lack of metadata is one of the key problems.

Suppose you create a Microsoft Word document. If the program is set up to index metadata, you will be prompted to fill in fields recording information like author, title, subject matter or the expiration date of the information contained within the document, Edwards says. These metadata fields are like “outer markings” that make it easier for search engines to determine whether a document should be returned on a hit list, and reduce their dependency on full text searches.

A decade ago, when enterprise search programs were less widely used, it was “horrendously difficult” to get employees to enter this kind of information, according to Edwards. And it remains hard today, he says, even though the widespread use of enterprise search provides a clear incentive to enter metadata.

“Ninety percent of the documents that are created have no useful metadata,” Edwards says. “Until we get more of that metadata it is going to be an uphill struggle to get better results out of these very capable search technologies.”

Some high-end enterprise search applications, such as Autonomy, do a “modest job” of determining what a document is about on its own, he says.

“They do more than just pick out the main words and index them. They can look at parts of the document, the document title and headings and work out what the document is about, and use that in the future to help you retrieve information that is of a similar nature,” Edwards says.

Susan Feldman, vice president for content technologies at IDC, has been studying the cost of ineffective enterprise search for five years. Her latest research paper, released in April, found that information workers waste 3.5 hours each week on searches that don’t turn up the right information. Assuming an average salary of $60,000, including benefits – a figure based on 2004 Bureau of Labor Statistics data – the cost of ineffective search is $5,251 per worker per year. For 1,000 workers, the cost is $5.25 million.

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