Logo Rob Buckley – Freelance Journalist and Editor

New seekers

New seekers

A new generation of search tools aims to help corporate users find valuable content and information buried deep on their hard drives.

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A magnifying glass, a text box and a talkative dog: the Windows file search function is one of the most recognised, necessary and loathed parts of the operating system. It is slow, unreliable and extremely limited, a fact that becomes glaringly obvious when it is compared against today's Internet searches, capable of providing excellent results almost instantaneously.

If some enterprising company had decided to sell a superior file search system to frustrated Windows users, no one would have been surprised. For a whole flurry of companies ranging from Google and Yahoo to Microsoft's own MSN subsidiary to do it and all for free: that's a surprise.

The first desktop search tools of note came from AltaVista and Verity in 1997, but were soon abandoned. AltaVista launched an improved version of Desktop Search in 2002. This provided a simple way to search both the Web and the PC at the same time, but again was more or less ignored. It was the launch of Google Desktop Search in October 2004 that really changed the market, thanks to Google's global strength. By December, MSN, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo had all announced plans to release similar technology.

According to Angela Ashenden, an Ovum analyst, the motivation for this new focus on the desktop by search engine companies is reasonable clear. “It's a continuing battle for loyal customers, really. If you've got someone searching from the desktop rather than going to a web site, then they're going to be that much more loyal. Where your revenue is from advertising, getting loyal customers is key,” she says.

For MSN, there is an additional motivation however. “Microsoft feels increasingly threatened by Google and what Google might do. The only real challenge to Microsoft comes from Google: it never knows what Google's going to do next.”

The current desktop search systems all essentially work the same way. First, they search for files whose format they understand. They then index that file, just as a database system would, 'summarising' it and storing the result on the local hard drive. Then, when the user performs a search, the system compares the search with that database and that enables it to return relevant results.

With few exceptions, desktop search tools don't stray far from simple keyword searches. Both Autonomy's IDOL Enterprise Desktop Search and FAST's Personal Search Platform use a subset of their developers' server indexing toolkit to permit more complicated searches.

The database doesn't just contain information about the file's content. It also includes the file's metadata such as 'from' and 'to' fields of emails; duration of sound files; authors, subjects and titles of Word files; and so on. That means that more complicated searches, such as “all sound files less than five minutes in duration”, are possible with the majority of desktop search tools.

However, the database only contains a snapshot of the hard drive at the time of indexing: any changes made to files after that point will not be reflected in the index, nor will any new files. So desktop search systems also include a tool that takes in any changes to the local file system and updates the database of indexes with the new information.

As well as desktop search, most tools also offer web search. Users can choose to pass their searches, where possible, to a web search engine. The tool can then aggregate the file system search results with the online search results and present them as either a unified collection or discrete sets.

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