The Search for Meaning


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Everybody’s looking for something when they attend trade shows—from cool tchotchkes to contacts, potential customers and, of course, solutions. The 2007 Enterprise Search Summit had some swell booth freebies—my personal favorite was Northern Light’s illuminated pen, followed a close second by the Google pin featuring blinking lights on the two o’s. While Northern Light’s choice is actually useful, anything branded Google does carry its own cachet.

In fact, one of Google’s speakers at the show, senior product and marketing manager for Google Enterprise Kevin Gough, actually said, “Often, just seeing the Google name on search results makes users feel better about them. We sometimes joke that we should let companies choose whichever tool they want and simply license the Google logo for the search page.”

Despite his lighthearted take on the power of the Google brand, Gough had some serious insights into how the consumer market dictates expectations inside the enterprise. Without doubt, IT departments hear users say they want enterprise search to “work like Google,” while serious searchers bemoan the sheer quantity of results the engine generates.

People everywhere remark on Google’s apparent plans to rule the universe and, concurrent with the show, the company announced its new universal search approach. According to Gough, the company had “been putting a lot of effort into making users aware of multiple search applications,” but that end users appreciate the simplicity of its interface. The company considered federating its engines, but the differences in the algorithms that make them effective for pinpoint search would have lost efficacy.

Thus arose Google’s vision for universal search, which is to offer a simple interface on a tool that searches across all its content sources, compares and ranks all the information in real time, and delivers a single, integrated set of more precise results. It incorporates information from a variety of previously separate sources—including videos, images, news, maps, books, and websites—into one set of results.

It is significant that Google is working to integrate results among multiple repositories on the consumer side of its business, as federated search continues to be one of the greatest challenges for the enterprise market, particularly as an increasing amount of the content created is unstructured (email, IM, blogs, etc.). While vendors are working on a variety of approaches to improve federated search behind the firewall, we may again find ourselves in a situation in which Google’s consumer-facing solution will dictate end users’ expectations of how federated search “should work.”

Gough pointed out that Google isn’t the only reason that employees expect things to work the same way inside their cubicles as they do at home. He said, “Expectation is built on the consumer market, in which a great deal of money is spent on innovation. Unfortunately, the same level of investment is not usually made in the enterprise market.” This isn’t a big surprise. There’s an incredible amount of immediate return in the consumer market, whereas businesses move more cautiously and prefer proven solutions. At EContent, we sometimes cover developments in the entertainment market, for example, as we can see how they will eventually have significant applications inside the enterprise.

According to Gough, however, while Google is making its name (and its money) in the consumer market, it believes that the enterprise market requires investment and innovation to solve its problems. Thus, we may not need to wait for universal search to trickle down behind the firewall.

Gough discussed Google’s “OneBox concept,” announced a month prior to its universal search, in which the top result is from a repository deemed most appropriate for any given search. Masses of results appear below so that users can still sift as desired. Google OneBox for Enterprise delivers information from enterprise sources, such as CRM, ERP, and business intelligence systems, based on a user’s query. OneBox can provide users with secure access to everything from phonebook listings to graphs of inventory levels and sales trends, as well as content from partner repositories like Cisco, Cognos, Oracle, Salesforce.com, and SAS. Gough said, “Sometimes, just having OneBox results appear at the top raises awareness of the existence of repositories,” which may, in turn, lead users to find better information.

The solution also allows companies to develop XML-enabled customizable interfaces for results from specialized repositories, which lets them present more useful and usable results lists. It’s interesting that it is the simplicity of the Google user interface that is so appealing to the masses, yet inside organizations there remains a need to optimize the way results are presented to suit specific repositories and information needs.

As Northern Light’s CEO David Seuss said in the session that followed Gough’s, “In the enterprise today, it goes beyond searching. It is about finding meaning.”