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The hunt is over for desktop search tools

May 01, 2005 |

Most firms organize their projects and departments in the same way, using Microsoft Windows-based folders and files on computers and servers and some kind of name convention to index and organize their divisions of work.

As firms move toward total digital solutions, such as CAD, digital photography, scanning of hardcopy documents to PDF files, intranets, and e-mail, it has become apparent that better tools are needed to organize and search through this mass of information. There are very expensive enterprise-based solutions available to larger firms with bigger budgets, but for smaller firms, new types of tools are currently available.

The new search programs are better because they use "indexing" technology that catalogs hard drives as you add to them. That means the hard drive isn't scanned from scratch every time—which is what makes the current "search" function in Windows so slow.

Gaga for Google

One of these search tools is Desktop Search by Google, for Windows-based computers. It is available as a free download that can be installed easily and quickly. Once installed, the program will search and index all the information in your computer, including files in Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, as well as other file types along with web pages you have previously viewed in Internet Explorer, e-mail you have sent or received via Outlook, and even Instant Messenger chats you have had using AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). The tool searches only the real user folders, not system files in Windows and program files, which speeds up the process dramatically.

When you look at a web page, read an e-mail, open or edit a file, or have an AIM chat, Desktop Search does two things: It indexes that item's content so it can find the item later, and it copies the item's content into its database, so that you will be able to find and see long-finished chats and older versions of files and web pages. Depending on the processing speed of your computer and the amount of data it contains, it could take the search tool several hours to index the data initially. Since this one-time indexing only happens when your computer is idle, it doesn't slow down your other work. I was able to work on this column while the initial indexing was running in the background.

Google Desktop Search is integrated with Google's web search tool. Search requests are sent to two different programs and places. One copy of your query goes to, which searches the web only and returns a page with those results to your computer. Another copy of your query goes to the Desktop Search program running on your computer, which searches only its updated database on your computer for results. The tool also intercepts results from the page before you can see it, changes it to include the Desktop Search results, and then allows your web browser to show it to you.

Desktop Search's results page lists all the items in your Desktop Search index that match your search terms. By default, it orders results by when you last saw each item, with the most recently viewed items listed first. Sorting of results as well as other preferences is available with this rather handy program. When you click on a results title or, for e-mail, its subject link, you're taken to the results current version. If you click on a web page title link, your browser navigates to that web page's URL. If you click on an e-mail message subject link, you can read the e-mail in the browser and respond using your default mail program. If you click on a file title link, the most recent version of that file opens, using the appropriate application.

Currently, Desktop Search can be installed on only one user's Windows login and is not supported over a network. Each installation of the tool is located on just one computer. Desktop Search doesn't automatically search all your network drives, but it does search files you have seen since you installed the tool. If you view a file located on a network drive, that file will be indexed by Desktop Search and may appear in your results. The requirements are pretty hefty; it requires one gigabyte of space on your hard drive. Once installed, your personal Desktop Search index requires no more than four additional gigabytes. Desktop Search's database copies require substantially less space than the original documents, so you don't need to worry about filling up the space too quickly or taking up large portions of your hard drive.

Competitors join the market

Microsoft, Yahoo, and AskJeeves have announced similar products that offer intelligent Desktop Search Engines. They are fairly new programs and should be used with some level of caution. These programs differ in small ways. Yahoo! Desktop Search is a free download that runs as a stand-alone application, whereas Google's desktop search is part of the web site.

The MSN desktop engine, on the other hand, appears as a search window on the bottom toolbar in Windows XP. The Yahoo! search is similar to the MSN desktop feature, which allows for searches of more types of files (such as MP3s, image files, and PDF files) than Google's program does. Yahoo! also accommodates Microsoft Outlook, giving users the power to search through e-mails and attachments.

'Mini' tailored to smaller firms

Google also offers a hardware-based search product for the enterprise called Google Mini, which is geared toward small and medium-size businesses. The program is a hardware and software search appliance that offers your company the power and productivity of Google search.

Google Mini indexes and searches up to 50,000 documents and works with more than 220 different file formats, including HTML, PDF, Microsoft Office, and WordPerfect. It is easy to set up and requires minimal ongoing administration. It costs $4,995 for all hardware and software, including a year of support and hardware replacement coverage. Just point the Google Mini at your content, add a search box to your web site, and you're set. The Mini crawls your content and creates a master index of documents ready for instant retrieval whenever an employee or customer types in a search query. It's that simple to make your public web site or intranet as easy to search as

For even larger sites with more than 50,000 documents, Goggle offers the Google Search Appliance, which supports up to 15 million documents.

Competition keeps price right

The free search engines will continue to improve and will offer support for most file formats as well as programming interfaces. Companies such as Adobe, Quark, and Autodesk, as well as many small developers, have the ability to write the interfaces to make their file formats searchable by these programs. Due to intensive competition between these companies, they will have no choice but to continue to offer them as free downloads.

Once you start using these internal search engines, you'll wonder how you ever worked without them. They'll help you find so much information embedded in files—especially e-mail—that you forgot about. It's truly amazing.

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