5 min read

Heart Of The Search

Google wants a piece of the business market. But does it understand what companies need?
H&R Block Inc. CIO Marc West foresees Google becoming more of a presence in businesses, especially if it starts applying its technology to larger business issues such as providing new ways to sift through customer data. Of particular interest to West is the potential to do what he calls time-dimension searches that provide a snapshot of customer activity for a certain period--say, being able to ask a desktop search engine to find everything that mentions a certain customer over the past week. "As Google matures as an offering, and they start providing more of the transparency we need to put it in our ecosystem, they're going to start finding much more enterprise play," he says.

For now, the tax preparer--which has high-end information-retrieval software from Verity Inc.--isn't buying. The management tools in this desktop search product suggest Google understands what businesses need, such as striking a balance between access and privacy, but West is waiting to be sure before adopting anything throughout the company. "When you put search into your workplace, you have to make sure there are basic household rules," he says.

When deploying search, rules are very important, H&R Block's West says.

When deploying search, rules are very important, H&R Block's West says.
Google's products seem well suited for smaller companies such as Sales Development Services Inc., a 20-employee sales consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio, which deployed a Google Mini in January as a way of letting advertising agencies and media firms search its Web-based research collection. Now the company is testing Google's desktop search technology. The software's security and configuration settings are important, says CEO C. Lee Smith. "You don't want everyone in the company to be able to search for every document," he says. "We didn't feel comfortable rolling out desktop search without the enterprise controls."

Google created a multibillion-dollar business by making it simple for people to find information across the vastness of the Web in a few seconds, so it's not surprising that Schmidt is pitching an ease-of-use philosophy for other aspects of the desktop computing experience. "There's an issue of end-user dissatisfaction with IT," Schmidt said last week during a presentation at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2005 conference in San Francisco.

And there's an appetite for simplicity among businesses. "The solutions that were out there other than the Google Mini were either these really complex pieces of software that you had to baby-sit ... or it was bolt-on solutions," says Scott Klein, Web publisher for The Nation, a political magazine that uses the Mini to deliver search results on its Web site.

A no-hassle approach was key for Blitman & King LLP, an 18-attorney law firm in Syracuse, N.Y., that doesn't have the IT expertise to deploy and configure more-complex search technologies. The firm uses the Google Mini and Google's desktop search technology to let attorneys do things such as search for documents on PCs or even use mobile devices to remotely call up simple text versions of Word documents.

"It's great for people like us," says John Neubauer, the firm's legal administrator. "We don't have time to administer and become an expert in all the applications and sophisticated hardware." The prospect of being able to block access to sensitive documents without configuring servers or training clerical staff piqued Neubauer's interest. "I can make directories that are sensitive appear like a ghost so they don't come up in searches," he says.

But Google may not be the answer for every company. Competitors contend the company's PageRank search technology doesn't work well behind firewalls where documents aren't hyperlinked the way Web pages are. And IDC analyst Feldman notes that complex problems may require more-complex solutions. "The Google appliance is excellent at solving standalone search when you just want to get search up and running," she says. "It's not necessarily the answer to the more-complex needs of an enterprise because search isn't necessarily the information-finding tool that you want."

Google's competitors in the search business include Autonomy, IBM, Microsoft, Verity, and many others, and they all have their own clever plans. Microsoft last week introduced a consumer desktop search tool, called the MSN Search Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search, which is designed to find information on both PCs and the Web. Google and Microsoft increasingly are crossing into each other's territory, but Schmidt defers when asked about a competitive face-off that everyone but him seems to be talking about.

Google won't chase every business-oriented opportunity, Schmidt says. "There are legal search engines that understand the law at a semantic level that's required," he says. "There are health search engines that do the same thing. That's not something we're going to do. It's too specialized. It's too small a market."

No, Google is thinking bigger than that, as evidenced by its growing ambitions in the business-technology market. How Google gets from here to there is still an open question. Schmidt declines to say which of the company's technologies will appear next as business products, or when. In fact, he acts coy when asked about a long-term strategy. "We delight in the lack of such strategy," the CEO says.

For the quarter ending March 31, Google reported revenue of $1.3 billion, up 93% year over year. Not bad for flying blind.