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Google Search Appliance Graphic

Google will stop supporting the Google Search Appliance (GSA) in March 2019. GSA has typically been the site search choice for larger organizations with more complex and customized installations, so replacing it is a significantly more considered process that involves a greater degree of commitment and due diligence.

Typically, when replacing a piece of hardware, you’d go straight to your developers or IT specialists. However, before you do so (and I’m probably going to raise the ire of some IT folks out there) consider discussing your next site search platform with your marketing team first. Here’s why.

Replacing your Google Search Appliance is not a hassle- it’s an opportunity.

While it may seem like an unnecessary burden, replacing your Google Search Appliance is a great opportunity to transition to an upgraded site search and analytics platform that is capable of delivering significantly better customer experiences, as well as deeper customer insights.

Due to advances in technology, especially in the fields of machine learning and data analytics, you have the opportunity to replace your GSA with a platform that can offer greater relevance as well as a host of other features that are not available right out of the box with GSA.

Gartner AI adoption in 2018 graph
Source: Gartner Research

This is also the right time to transition the ownership of your site search platform from your IT to your marketing team.

We’ve been beating this drum for a while, but we’ll say it again- site search is a marketing initiative. The only reason site search has sat under the purview of the IT team, is because you were required to have a great degree of technical knowledge to install and maintain it. But that is no longer true.

Website were also once under the purview of IT teams, until around 10 years ago WYSIWYG platforms democratized them, allowing marketers to go directly in and own the content on them. Site search is moving in the exact same direction. Any modern site search platform that could be considered a worthy alternative to the Google Search Appliance should enable the marketing team to not only directly control the relevance of the results being delivered, but also learn from them via an intuitive analytics suite.

This makes perfect sense if you think about it, since it’s the marketing team that ultimately owns the relationship with the customer. If you disconnect customer inputs (search queries) from marketing output (content) you’re going to end up with a much weaker value proposition. Modern marketing is a data-driven enterprise- your content mix absolutely needs to be supported by a healthy feedback loop from the customers you’re serving, whether you’re a corporation, an educational institution, or a government agency.

The true value of site search as a marketing solution should be viewed from two perspectives- customer facing and internal value adds.

Let’s look at customer facing first.

The value of great site search from a customer facing perspective is an easy case to make. An increasing number of site visitors tend to use the search function vs. the navigation menu to find the information they are looking for. These visitors also convert at a higher rate than visitors who use standard navigation, as these visitors are “objective focused”- they already know what they are looking for.

This is supported by a recent study of ecommerce sites, that found that visitors that used site search converted at 4.63% versus the websites’ average of 2.77% – that’s 1.8 times more effective. These visitors also went on to contribute 13.8% of the revenues to these sites.

However, in order to capture these high-value visitors you need to provide them with a highly efficient experience. A high degree of relevance is of course a necessity, and machine learning driven automatic ranking will soon be the norm for enterprise level solutions. Assistive functionality like intelligent autocomplete, synonyms and bigram matching are also now the price of entry for any enterprise search platform. Additional functionality such as integrated on-site banners and faceted search are also highly desirable, as they can make a huge difference to the end users’ search experience.

But now comes the back-end. This is where it becomes critical to pick the right site search platform to replace your Google Search Appliance- all site search platforms are not equal in terms of their functionality or user-friendliness.

If you’re an organization that has previously required the search appliance, it’s likely you have a larger volume of pages, visitors, and potentially complex data needs. This eliminates most of the lighter-weight, low cost platforms that offer you limited functionality and analytics. Instead, you should be looking for a highly functional platform that can offer you deep customer analytics, machine learning (to efficiently manage your much larger data set), and reliable security and technical support.

This is not just an issue of delivering relevant results to your site visitors. It’s about delivering customer insights to your marketing team.

Analyzing the search terms these visitors use is an immediate window into the needs of the exact type of customer you are looking for- lower in the purchase funnel and highly motivated. The specificity of their needs is a marketing goldmine- it’s a fast way to figure out what’s trending within your prospective customer base. What most organizations miss is that the REAL VALUE of site search lies in the behavioral data & search analytics it generates. Search terms are your customers directly telling you what they want- it’s a great source of insights you can use to:

  • Find content gaps & ineffective content
  • Reveal the health & effectiveness of your website
  • Help shape your content strategy
  • Forecast future trends, and
  • Anticipate customer needs
IT vs Marketing

In order to take advantage of this, you need a platform that offers you the necessary analytical back-end. But here’s the thing-

The aforementioned content issues and consumer insights aren’t typically things your IT team has on their radar. These are the issues marketing grapples with on a daily basis, so beyond the initial installation, it makes sense to purchase a site search platform that is geared towards marketers, and useable by them on a daily basis.

This means analytics that are easily accessible, as well as simple and efficient back-end workflows. Ideally, you’ll have a search analytics dashboard that you can work directly from, where you can easily boost content, add synonyms, link banners, and take care of other standard tasks. The analytics dashboard should also be able to deliver data to the marketing team that can be used to generate visitor insights and search trends- having the ability to tie together various sources of behavioral data to create better customer profiles is marketing nirvana.

And here’s the other thing- in the long run your IT team will thank you for this. Most site search platforms are built with developers in mind. Which means that it takes a high degree of technical proficiency to install the platform, customize it, maintain it, and make changes to it. That means two things- a longer (and very expensive) implementation cycle if you’re building a platform in-house, plus constant maintenance requests. The fact that the marketing team can’t just jump in on the fly and make necessary changes, will ultimately drive your developers and IT team crazy- they’ll be on the receiving end of every minor request from marketing, even when they think they are done with the site search portion of the program, and have moved on to other projects.

So, you’ve decided to go with a marketing-oriented site search solution right? Not so fast…

In the course of the discussion around alternatives to your Google Search Appliance, there will also probably be someone at your organization who will suggest that you need a new hardware solution, much like your existing GSA. They will say you’ll have more control and that it’s more secure. They’ll also likely have a closet full of CDs at home, and possible a membership card to Blockbuster in their wallet.

Let’s get this out of the way.

The Myth: Search hardware is a more safe and secure option. The Truth: It’s just a headache.

On-Premise vs Cloud Computing

First of all, hardware is more expensive. Aside from higher up-front fees, on-premise software solutions typically include an annual maintenance fee to cover customer support, plus you’ll have to factor in the extra cost of having your IT department solve ongoing maintenance issues, installing hot-fixes and service packs, etc.

On top of that, it’s not even more secure. In fact, it may be less so. Your on-premise search solution is going to require a lot of work to stay up-to-date with the latest security patches. The more customized it is, the harder it will be to update and evolve your in-house software, which adds additional, unplanned-for costs. The truth is, the moment you install your hardware, it immediately starts becoming obsolete.

Finally, scalability and backup are longer-term issues you need to plan for. An on-premise solution, by its nature, is harder to scale along with your increasing data needs, and is ill-equipped to handle the same risks as an off-premise data center with multiple redundancies and backups in place. You won’t even know the quality of your on-premise backup process until you can complete a full restore.

In comparison, a SaaS platform built for marketers will always be up-to-date, with security patches and fixes pushed automatically. It’s infinitely scalable, and will offer you new functionality as the technology evolves. Most importantly, especially in the case of a machine learning driven system (which face it- you’re going to need) the technology is evolving so rapidly that you don’t want to be left out of innovations that are going to occur 3 months, 6 months, or a year from now. This is where you get to take advantage of the collective knowledge and resources of the developers and data scientists at a SaaS company, who are 100% focused on site search and artificial intelligence- resources that it would make no sense for you to have in-house.

Whether you realize it or not, site search is the new frontier of marketing analytics. It’s evolved from an IT tool to a full-fledged marketing solution, and this is your opportunity to make the most of it.

So that’s it. Be kind to your developers. Stop with the hardware. Learn to love SaaS.

And talk to your marketing team.