Spurred by moves from its biggest rival, Microsoft, and by a burst of offerings from a clutch of innovative startups, Google is tossing more resources at burgeoning enterprise search tools. In some cases the search giant is applying techniques and technologies from its consumer Web searches; in others it is bringing new products and new marketing methods to bear to win business customers.
Enterprise search is moving beyond an afterthought to become a competitive advantage and a way for businesses to attract and retain customers, according to Nitin Mangtani, lead product manager for Google's enterprise search group.
For online businesses "the key is conversion," Mangtani said in an interview in his office at the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif. "That has made search a core part of companies' marketing strategy, not just technical feature."
In early June Google renamed and relaunched its public Web-search tool for single sites, now called Google Site Search. But that covers only the tip of the enterprise search market: Companies need sophisticated search engines not only for customers using their public Web sites, but also for employees tracking information on internal networks, often across multiple separate databases.
Almost every company today has data residing in multiple repositories -- e-mail systems, Oracle databases, application servers like WebLogic, and, increasingly, online social network-style forums like Wikis and blogs. Unifying a single search interface across those varied systems, which often use different protocols and programming languages, has become something of a holy grail.
Two separate surveys released in April found that most workers seeking information through search engines are increasingly frustrated and disappointed in the results they are obtaining. One report, by online systems expert Stephen Arnold, found that more than two-thirds of the respondents in his survey, all users of traditional enterprise search systems, are dissatisfied with existing systems.
Seeking to preserve its huge market share in enterprise software tools, Microsoft has this year made a pair of significant acquisitions in the search arena. In January the Redmond, Wash. software giant said it would acquire enterprise search firm Fast Search & Transfer (FAST) for a reported $1.2 billion, and earlier this month it announced the purchase of startup Powerset, which specializes in so-called "semantic search," for an undisclosed sum.
IBM has also beefed up its enterprise search offering, called OmniFind, with context tools available through third-party supplier Axioma Search.
Independent companies have also entered the field, attempting to help businesses erode the barriers separating data in different digital containers. Newtonville, Mass.-based startup Attivio is headed by Ali Riaz, former CEO of FAST, while U.K.-based Silobreaker offers "contextual search" in a customizable package for specific vertical industries.
Google's response, says Mangtani, is to bring the power of Google's search algorithms to enterprise users. "We're bringing that same experience you get on Google.com to enterprise users," he explains. "There's no reason you can't strive for the same goal and the same quality of results."
Specifically, Google has topped its Search Appliance for businesses with an interface called OneBox for Enterprise, which delivers information from both unstructured and structured sources including CRM, ERP, and business-intelligence applications. The company says that Cisco, Oracle, Salesforce.com, and SAS have all partnered to render their databases and apps visible to OneBox.
Google has both advantages and disadvantages in approaching the growing market for enterprise search, says the company's director of research Peter Norvig. On the one hand it has the experience in dealing with massive amounts of unstructured information and the power of hundreds of engineers developing advances in general search. On the other, what works on thousands of Google servers doesn't necessarily scale down to small enterprises with a few machines, and Google may focus on providing the types of specialized, niche search tools that highly data-intensive industries, such as energy and health care, will be looking for.
"We have certain economies of scale in having all this data," says Norvig, but even Google doesn't have the resources to cover all possible niches. That creates opportunities for small, nimble search startups that are finding funding and customers.
"There may be companies that can really focus on one thing and do a better job," admits Norvig. "That's up to them."