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Network World - The fervor around Google's summertime IPO has turned search technology into a hot commodity. Vendors with tools for searching corporate intranets and Web sites are trying to capitalize on the moment. Microsoft, too, has added to the search mania with its rumblings about forthcoming technology for searching desktop resources.
If there's one thing all the parties can agree on, it's the need to make it easier for users to find stuff.
Half the time information retrieval technology fails to find what users are looking for, according to Delphi Group. Among 300 respondents to a recent Delphi survey, 60% said it's easier to find work-related information today than it was two years ago. But 68% said it's still a difficult and time-consuming task. On average, respondents spend between two and four hours each day using computers to search for work-related information.
Adding to the complexity is the state of corporate data. Until recently, structured databases controlled much of the information flow, says John Rueter, vice president of marketing at search technology vendor Fast Search & Transfer (FAST). But today databases only account for 20% of the information in an organization, he says. The other 80% is unstructured - including text documents, HTML pages, e-mail and instant messages.
Today's crop of enterprise search vendors aims to address all these disparate sources. Some of the myriad players specializing in search and retrieval include Autonomy, Convera, Endeca, FAST, iPhrase, Mercado and Verity. Database vendors such as IBM and Oracle, along with business application vendors such as SAP, also offer search products.
All this attention signals a second coming of sorts for search technology. There was lots of noise when Excite, Infoseek and Lycos first started peddling tools for searching and navigating Web content. But this time the attention is on organizing and retrieving information scattered among enterprise network sources.
Enterprise search technology has matured in the past few years, says Carl Frappaolo, executive vice president at Delphi Group. Some products incorporate artificial intelligence and natural language processing, so users can express queries in everyday language, for example. Others can automatically generate taxonomies to organize content.
The goal is efficiency. "Whether I'm a manager or a customer or a worker bee, I can easily and definitively determine if there's anything known by this company that's relevant to what I need right now. That's what search technology is really all about-speed to awareness," Frappaolo says.
But experts agree that getting there is no easy feat. To start, companies need to figure out what they need.
It seems obvious, but companies need to clearly define the content users will be going after and determine how much assistance from search engines is required, Frappaolo says. Finding data is not too difficult if users have a good idea of what they're looking for-such as querying a structured data source to identify all clients who spent more than $50,000, or an unstructured source to find all the e-mails containing the word "corruption," he says. Things get sticky when queries involve a range of values, spelling approximations and synonyms - and cross multiple repositories and data types.
In the past, companies tended to deploy search applications in specific departments to retrieve information from single repositories. Now companies are realizing they need a search platform that cuts across an entire company and can search structured and unstructured sources, FAST's Rueter says.
Likewise corporate mergers and acquisitions are driving search upgrades, Rueter says. "Organizations that are consolidating need to find ways to effectively integrate information, and they're looking at search as a way to integrate all this information quite rapidly," he says.
Gregory Smith, vice president and CIO at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), recommends trying before you buy. The conservation organization in Washington, D.C., uses Verity's Ultraseek software to power search capabilities across its newly retooled Web site -- where traffic increased 63% from 2002 to 2003.
"Our new redesigned site is highly dynamic. So we wanted to capture that dynamic content, and more importantly, have the ability to drill into the detail and the superset of database content to include in searchable content catalogs," Smith says.
Although most search engines can handle dynamic content that's cached, WWF wanted to make sure the search technology it deployed could handle not only a subset of underlying databases, but also delve into the databases themselves, Smith says. He trialed many technologies before settling on Verity's platform.