Uncertain seekers

When Google entered the enterprise market with a range of search appliances in 2005, there was naturally some excitement. In so-called “consumer search”, Google’s ranking algorithms improved accuracy and relevancy so dramatically that it became the global leader overnight. Expectations for easier, faster and cheaper searching in the difficult enterprise market were quickly raised.

In the event, the ‘Google effect’ has not played out in that simplistic way – as delegates at a recent Information Age lunch on the corporate use of search technology recently testified. The attendees (who were promised anonymity) from financial services, pharmaceuticals, petroleum and other blue-chip companies described a long series of in-formation management challenges that they are grappling with and which they believe are still largely unsolved. Few think that Google – at least in its present incarnation – will provide the sophistication they need.

This, of course, is no surprise to the incumbent suppliers of enterprise search technology, nor indeed content management software companies, who have long grappled with the many difficult issues involved in the management and retrieval of unstructured data. They argue that while consumer- style searching has a role to play at the commoditised end of the business, enterprise class problems are altogether more complex, involving issues of security, compliance, performance, lifecycle management and the problem of integrating and extracting data from different applications and databases.

In an extended discussion, the Information Age readers centred on three key issues that are troubling them in search technology.

First, several delegates pointed out that their organisations are struggling with how to find a way to search across multiple databases, including those outside their immediate organisation. They want to be sure they are genuinely conducting a comprehensive search. Although they are aware that technology is available that could solve that problem, issues of governance, security and culture make this a complex matter.

This is related to the second issue – security. Users are concerned that universal access to documents raises many security and cultural problems. Search engines, they are aware, need to be very carefully set up to allow some people to see a document, but not others.

Third, the tagging of documents emerged as a major issue. In consumer search, categorisation has been virtually eliminated by the power of ranking algorithms and the speed and scale of the indexing required. But many businesses clearly want to take a more structured approach to managing their documents, applying categories and taxonomies to their documents. This enables them to make more useful queries, get more targeted results and make the results available for other applications.

The downside: taxonomies are difficult to establish and maintain, and the entry of documents into a database requires a discipline that end users often won’t follow. Although suppliers offer tools in this area, including some forms of automatic categorisation, corporate customers still see this is a major hurdle.

The delegates all agreed on one point, though: issues around search, and information management generally, have moved up the agenda over the past year. And as new laws require better information management, and new technologies such as instant messaging and voice over IP become more popular, the role of enterprise search will become even more important.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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