Consumer and Enterprise Search: Not an Exact Match - InformationWeek

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5/18/2004
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Consumer and Enterprise Search: Not an Exact Match

Overshadowed by Google mania and relatively simple technology for consumer search engines, enterprise search is making exciting progress. But the requirements are tougher: businesses demand accuracy, timeliness, integration, and availability.

Thus the orb he roamed
With narrow search, and with inspection deep
Considered every creature.
- John Milton,
Paradise Lost

If we view computing as the discipline of automating information management, then search is the computing world's second oldest profession. Surely no software developer embarking on a new project, immersed in use cases and design patterns, ever thought, "the users are going to find my data organization impenetrable so I'd better put a search box on the main screen." The designers do their best; the boss hires usability consultants; but all the same, a search function ends up occupying prime real estate on the Windows Start menu, on the main page of ibm.com, and as a key toolbar feature of Adobe's Acrobat Reader. Users will frequently bypass all the carefully defined hierarchical menus and navigation categories and go straight to search.

Search is a necessary evil, providing shortcuts to documents we know exist but don't know how to reach. Search is also a means of discovering new sources of information on subjects of interest. These two needs are common to consumer Web use and within enterprise environments. But despite all the attention paid to Web search — to Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft's incipient re-entry into the field — and despite enterprise adoption (and adaptation) of Web-search engines, particularly in portals, there's much more to enterprise search than simply presenting ranked lists of hits generated by matching keywords in massive Web-site-content hoards.

Parallel Universes

The differences between enterprise and consumer Web search approaches begin with architecture. Businesses worry about information security, accountability, and data integration, along with interoperability among the varied systems that support business operations. These points aren't important in consumer search, where the big issues are an engine's reach and the relevance and comprehensiveness of the results returned.

The operating environments of the two classes of search also differ. The Web is free of mandated standards beyond the basic languages and protocols that link servers and documents. The low cost of publishing to the Internet — and of being recorded in search-engine indexes — led to the Web's explosive growth to the point where it is now virtually boundless in subject-matter coverage. The corollary, of course, is that information quality and timeliness vary hugely.

For enterprises, the boundaries between corporate space and the public Internet are increasingly blurred. Nonetheless, every company maintains computing systems with proprietary and confidential information that isn't (or at least shouldn't be) exposed on the Internet. The cost of producing, managing, and disseminating information is high for modern enterprises because efficiency and profitability depend on accuracy, timeliness, and availability. This high cost constrains an enterprise to concentrate on information that's directly related to operations, justified by business process needs.

In exchange for ease of use and low cost, consumer Web users accept questionable quality — potentially low accuracy, incomplete subject-area coverage, dubious information value — and the simplest results presentation. You type a few words into a text box and get a list of hits; all that's asked of you is your willingness to view paid placements and other forms of advertising. Most of us are happy with that. Commentators frequently assert that only a small percentage of users attempt so-called advanced search, which allows you to search for expressions composed with Boolean logic and specifying file type, source, and other details. Furthermore, given the variety of uses that may potentially be made of search results, tailoring the presentation of results for any particular use might make other applications more difficult.

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