Enterprise Search in Need of Improvement

Because of the Internet’s widespread acceptance, search has become one of computer users’ most commonly used functions. Individuals of all ages have become quite comfortable with sitting down, entering a few keywords and finding needed information. However, performing those functions at work for business-related purposes has been more difficult than completing searches for personal info.

Whit Andrews, research vice president at Gartner Group, told TechNewsWorld that “Because of the way that corporations store information, employees often cannot find business-related data as easily as they can locate personal information, and that disparity can lead to frustration.”

Filling the Void

The void has lead to opportunities for vendors. “A growing number of companies are focusing on delivering search systems geared to addressing the challenges found with enterprise search,” stated Matthew Brown, a senior analyst with Forrester Research.

Vendors have built products that index corporate data, which can be stored in Enterprise Resource Planning systems, e-mail messages, text documents, or spreadsheets. To deploy these products, a company needs to complete an information inventory, develop an information repository, connect the repository data to an enterprise search engine system, and then let users access the engine via a company’s Intranet. While the products have been available for a few years, they have garnered only limited acceptance for several reasons.

Failing to Meet Expectations

The most obvious reason is the enterprise systems do not work well. Part of the reason is Internet search is much simpler than enterprise search. With the former, users have broad search goals — many times they don’t know exactly what they are looking for– and are usually only looking for places where they can find information. After they type in a keyword, such as “cellphone,” for example, users frequently are satisfied with being brought to a comparison Web site where information about several phones is listed.

That is not usually the case when they search for corporate data. After users type in a key phrase, say Joseph Smith’s address, they expect a specific piece of information to appear and are disappointed if that does not happen.

Another difference is the type of data cataloged. With Internet search, information is restricted to mainly Web pages in HTML format. In enterprise searches, data is stored in a variety of formats beyond HTML, such as word processing documents, database management systems, and image processing systems.

Internet search systems are also able to easily pinpoint information sources, which usually are individual or company Web servers. Within an enterprise, information may reside on central servers, department systems, or employee machines, which can be PCs, laptops, or handheld devices. Consequently, companies often spend a lot of time and exert a great deal of effort identifying where information is located and then making it available to the enterprise search engine.

Google to the Rescue?

Many corporations had hoped that enterprise search systems would improve when Google, which has become the firm synonymous with search, made a major foray into the enterprise search market in June 2004. At the time, the company revamped its Google Search Appliance line and focused on two attributes that helped it gain a top position in the Internet search market: low pricing and simplicity.

Competitors offered products that sold for US$50,000 to $1 million. The Google Search Appliance starts at $30,000; the Google Mini, a scaled-down search system geared to departments or small companies, sells for $2,995; and Google Desktop Search for Enterprise, which is designed for searching individual files, is free.

The company tried to maintain the ease of use functions found with its Web search system: corporations can complete product installation in a few hours compared to the days — sometimes weeks — typically associated with traditional enterprise search systems. “Companies had been paying five dollars in systems integration charges for every one dollar they paid in enterprise search software licensing fees,” Forrester Research’s Brown told TechNewsWorld.

Google did force competitors to reexamine their enterprise search offerings. For instance, Verity, one of the leaders in enterprise search, purchased the Ultraseek search engine, which was designed for the consumer market, and started offering companies a one year free trial for the product, which sells for about $25,000. Customers are limited to searching for 25,000 documents, but they can play with the software before forking over the licensing fee.

A Definite Buzz Kill

While Google has generated buzz about enterprise search, the company has not emerged as the market leader — at least not yet. “Initially customers were excited about Google getting into the enterprise search business, but many of them have been disappointed with the company’s products,” said Gartner Group’s Andrews.

Some of the complaints center on the product’s Internet-centric design. Google’s PageRank search technology, which determines which items are displayed to users, does not categorize company data as well as it does Web information. The product does not offer corporations robust filters so they can fine tune searches. An aerospace company may want to break a term like satellite into four or five subcategories but the search engine may only support the two or three categories.

Security is a high priority issue for enterprises. In health care companies, access to patient data has to be protected, and a growing number of laws have made it clear that businesses need to protect financial data. In some cases, users are not able to set search engine security parameters so they are in sync with corporate policies.

There are also organizational items that Google needs to address. The firm’s business has been built with a paper thin support system. “Enterprise users are willing to pay extra for software as long as they are assured that the vendor will support it,” noted Gartner Group’s Andrews. Google has not spent much time developing indirect channels, such as systems integrators and value added resellers, to help market and support its products.

The end result is enterprises in need of a search engine are often left with unfulfilling options. “Enterprise search products have been improving, but additional enhancement are needed for them to meet the needs of many companies,” concluded Forrester Research’s Brown.

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