It’s In Here Somewhere

Desktop-search tools are helping employees find information and companies find savings.
John EdwardsJanuary 24, 2006

Anyone who has ever prepared a tax return knows the feeling: somewhere in that vast pile of bank statements, canceled checks, credit-card receipts, W-2s, checklists, worksheets, and sundry other paperwork lies the one piece of data you need right now to complete line 37b. But where in the name of the 16th Amendment is it?

If it’s any consolation, professionals suffer the same fate. So when Liberty Tax Service began developing new in-house tax software for its nationwide team of tax preparers, it made integrated desktop-search capabilities a top priority.

Giving Liberty’s tax specialists a way to scan their computers for relevant tax data will boost productivity and cut costs, says Rufe Vanderpool, vice president of software development for the Virginia Beach, Va.-based firm. That’s because the tax-preparation software the company supplies to its franchisees is crammed full of Internal Revenue Service notices and other relevant documents. Preparers need fast access to all of it. And since, as Vanderpool says, “everyone knows how to search,” providing the ability to find what you need when you need it was seen as essential.

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While desktop-search applications have been kicking around for at least a decade, Google Inc. brought the technology into the spotlight with the release of its slick Google Desktop tool in October 2004. The product, which in essence allows you to “Google” the documents and other data sources on your hard drive in much the same way that you would Google a given search term on the Internet, was an immediate hit. Soon employees, with no encouragement (or approval) from corporate IT, began to load the software onto their machines. Now the office desktop has emerged as a key battleground for all of the major Internet search players, including Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo, as well as smaller search developers such as X1 Technologies (which licenses its technology to Yahoo), Ask Jeeves, and Exalead.

Helping the Help Desk

Businesses like desktop-search tools because they help information-hungry workers quickly find data stored deep inside their hard drives and, depending on the specific configuration, on corporate intranets and the Internet as well. Easy to use, these programs stand in stark contrast to complex and unwieldy business-intelligence and content-management applications, which can take months to learn and can overwhelm users not versed in the ways of Boolean operators and other advanced search techniques.

Another key benefit is that desktop search can relieve the strain on in-house support staff. At Liberty, for example, support personnel must field an endless stream of questions from tax preparers at 2,000 offices scattered around the nation. That gets frustrating, and expensive, when the question amounts to “Where are the instructions for Form 3520-A?”

Which search tool is best will vary based on needs. Vanderpool says Liberty turned to X1 Technologies because it felt the company could help it build highly flexible desktop-search features directly into new and existing applications. “X1 has a phenomenal amount of file types they’ll search, so that was huge to us,” he says. “Most of the documentation we have is in PDF files, so that was a big issue.” The IRS also uses PDF for many of its documents, which made the need for PDF searching imperative. So was the ability to integrate cross-references between sources like IRS documents and Liberty’s internal documentation. “We’ve found all sorts of intuitive places within our software where we can build in desktop-search functions for users,” says Vanderpool. “As we develop new documentation, or add additional IRS documentation, all I have to do is put it into the directory and the search software will automatically index it and make it available.” Liberty is now using the new search technology at its headquarters and planned to distribute it to franchisees at the end of last month.

The idea of search as a separate activity (that is, product) is fast giving way to a more integrated approach. Last October, IBM announced that it was teaming with Google to link its WebSphere Information Integrator OmniFind Edition with Google technology so that employees have access to powerful search functionality from within a WebSphere portal. A similar deal integrated the Google Desktop for Enterprise tool with IBM Lotus Notes so that E-mail messages could be searched quickly.

Microsoft is also aiming for seamless search-application integration. The enterprise version of its Windows Desktop Search product, introduced last November, further integrates the product’s search presence into Windows and Office. Searches from the Windows XP toolbar, for example, now default to Windows Desktop Search rather than Windows’s slow and clumsy internal search function. Additionally, searches made in Outlook’s MSN Toolbar now appear within the application’s window rather than popping up in a separate box.

With so many partnerships promising to combine better search capabilities with existing applications, companies may wonder if they need to budget a separate line item for desktop-search tools. Experts say that depends on the enterprise, the applications it uses, and how soon it wants to embrace the capability. While desktop search will eventually be incorporated into a number of applications and operating systems, that integration will take place over several years. Companies should ask their key suppliers when and if they plan to offer new search capabilities, and then decide whether it makes sense to buy dedicated search products today.

Searching for Trouble

While desktop search’s inherent productivity benefits and marketing momentum would seem to promise impending ubiquity, security experts warn that the technology is not without its dangers. Perhaps the biggest risk is the way new search tools allow workers to stumble upon data that management would prefer to keep hidden. “Right now, for a lot of enterprises, the sheer difficulty in finding certain kinds of sensitive information provides a form of security,” says Whit Andrews, a research vice president of the High Performance Workplace Group at Gartner Inc. “Desktop search changes that.”

To address this problem, both Microsoft and Google recently added beefed-up security features to the enterprise versions of their desktop-search products. Unlike the consumer versions that workers have been surreptitiously installing on their office PCs, the enterprise editions allow managers to decide exactly what files get indexed and searched. “This allows companies to enforce usage policies consistent with their security standards,” says Matthew Glotzbach, Google’s senior product manager for Google Enterprise.

And then there’s the matter of Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. Businesses can run afoul of Sarbox if they allow workers to bring in their own unauthorized desktop-search tools, or if in-house enterprise search tools aren’t implemented with adequate consideration for security. “In a post-Sarbox world, you have a responsibility to make sure that across your entire network — from the individual PC level all the way up to your big applications — you have an enforceable security policy in place for all of your information,” warns Josh Jacobs, president of Pasadena, Calif.-based X1.

Another potential problem is desktop-search quality. There’s a reason why businesses have spent piles of money on expensive business-intelligence and content-management systems — for all their complexity they do provide a high level of accuracy. “One- or two-word search queries do a really lousy job of pulling back enterprise content, because there’s little or no context around what the person is looking for,” says Forrester Research Inc. senior analyst Matthew Brown. As a result, some of desktop search’s perceived productivity benefits often evaporate as users burn away precious hours chasing down certain types of information that could be supplied much faster by trained researchers.

But for Liberty’s Vanderpool, desktop search promises a very real bottom-line benefit, one he has calculated to the dollar. “With X1, we project that our support-call volume will drop by 10 percent and we’ll reduce support times by 30 percent, resulting in a savings of $263,995 a year,” he says. “Savings is the answer we’re searching for.”

John Edwards is a technology writer based in Gilbert, Arizona.