// Commented out mbk Feb 2019 // //
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SCOE: Search Centers of Excellence

Old Assumptions

In the past, search was seen as 'tactical'. Someone within a company would recognize the need to 'add search' to a portal project or web site, or an edict would be issued to 'fix search', and IT would be given some basic requirements and tasked with picking a vendor and making the system work. IT would take a pragmatic approach. In many cases, if a new engine installed and ran without setting off alarms it was considered to be working, and the busy IT folks would move on to fight new high priority fires. We should say that we're quite at home with corporate IT folks - many of our staff and a number of good friends have served in IT roles either formally or informally. Since companies viewed search as a generic middleware, IT approached it like a database or email system. Install it. Configure it. Run it. Ping to make sure it's up.

We actually had one IT department tell us they didn't need to inventory the content indexed by their search engine. Their approach was that if the crawler got most of the content, great; if not, well no big tragedy. If someone eventually complained, they'd fix that specific issue. We're not accusing anybody of being reckless, it's just a question of time and priorities, and giving attention to the most urgent infrastructure issues; if search is viewed as just another piece of infrastructure, this is a very reasonable approach.

In other companies, it was the corporate librarians that inherited the responsibility for search. Corporate librarians have been trained in search for years, along with categorizing and organizing information, so it was a small matter of bringing in some IT resources to get it up and running. The benefit of a corporate library having responsibility is that librarians do know content, and they are generally thorough and likely to spot incomplete or otherwise mangled information. Don't mess with corporate librarians!

But corporate librarians may not necessarily be thinking about things like Business Intelligence, Search Analytics, security, compliance, customer retention, etc. This is another case where the bigger strategic role of search might not be fully realized.

Search Centers of Excellence

Sometime in the last 5 years, companies started to realize the strategic importance of great search, both within the company/intranet and on their public sites.

Fortune 500 companies typically saw their intranets growing to the size that the entire Internet was back in the mid 90's; and they saw that deflecting customer service and IT helpdesk questions had a direct beneficial impact on corporate profits. Great search saved money!

At the same time, companies that sold products on the web realized that without really good search, customers would abandon their site. Jakob Nielsen in his well known 1999 study found that half of site visitors would use search if there was a search box. And we all learned that a poor search results page is probably the last thing a frustrated site user sees before he or she leaves your site for one with better search. Great search increased sales!

As you can imagine given the different outlooks between these two types of companies, as management began to read, hear, and discover the importance of search, different types of organizations evolved. Companies in both groups started to organize for search success. However, a common element to both was the desire to gather all of the skills required for great search into a single department. These skills, many of which are listed in Figure 1, include all the skills required to make search great. Modeled on practices used in the early space race by large aerospace companies, these groups became known as Search Centers of Excellence.

Where these Search Centers of Excellence - SCOE's - fit in the corporate org chart depended on how the corporation approached search.

SCOE Staffing and Skills

  • Executive Sponsor
  • Business Domain Expert
  • Marketing Staff
  • Project Management
  • Information Architects
  • Librarians
  • IT, Operations & Networking Staff
  • Linguistic Experts (taxonomies/synonyms/etc)
  • Content Experts
  • UI/HTML Engineers
  • Search Expert Developers
  • Search Quality Assessment
  • Search Analytics Specialists
  • Business Intelligence Staff
  • Search Quality Specialists
  • Search Evangelist
  • Financial / ROI Justification

In companies that view search as a primary way to drive revenue, the manager of the SCOE is often a high level executive who reports directly to the CEO. The SCOE is charged with implementing search for all brands or lines of business (LOB), and typically all staff for search and search analytic management report to the Chief Search Officer - the CSO. The SCOE in these companies includes IT and network responsibility for search as well, even if there is a separate IT operation for web operations: the search servers belong to the CSOE.

In contrast, corporations that view search as a cost savings measure, the SCOE is typically run by a high-level manager, perhaps a VP level, who reports to the CIO. Like those companies that view search as a tool to drive revenue, the SCOE at these companies are staffed with all of the skills that are required to make search work. This central SCOE may have many project teams that move from project to project within the corporation as divisions and lines of business have the need to implement search. In this model, by the way, the Marketing/Content staff may be provided by the division/LOB for each project.

Sometimes, for historical or philosophical reasons, these 'cost saver' corporations may organize using a small central SCOE that serves in an advisory role to operating divisions and lines of business which each have their own perhaps smaller SCOE. In these cases, the central SCOE is responsible for tasks like documenting search best practices for the company; documenting successful (and perhaps less successful) search projects; providing centralized vendor recommendations and negotiations; and often offering technical shared libraries and code for search.

In those corporations that use a distributed model for SCOE, the smaller distributed units may vary widely in size and capability from division to division and line to line. But the successful ones have access to all of the skills a large, central SCOE needs as shown in Figure 1 above.

Decisions, decisions

Given these choices - and others - the obvious question is 'which model is right for you'?

The answer? It depends.

First, does search work well the way it's organized now? Perhaps your IT department runs search, has done so for years, and works very hard to understand about content, search activity, and corporate expectation and needs. Or if your corporate library is doing quite well with search, that's great. If it works, don't fix it.

But if, like so many companies, you've got a bad feeling that search isn't quite working the way it could, or that it is not ready to handle future demands, then you should start looking around. You can start improving things as an informal project - get in touch with people active with search throughout your company and start sharing information. Conduct your own 'best practices' review and inventory where you are doing well and where you might do better. Read newsletters and blogs, talk to vendors, attend trade shows. Remember: Great vendors will educate you, but their outlook may be a bit biased even in the most honest sales guys. You might consider bringing in a consulting firm that specializes in search and SCOE's (sorry - we had to say it!).

Find out which vendors other divisions are using; meet the people who have an interest in search working really well. Persevere and you will start having small successes. And hang in there.