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The Obvious

Hardly any expert these days would answer the question whether one needs an Intranet search tool in a large company Intranet with "no". But why is that, and what are the alternatives, if any?

Why not Google?

In a situation in which you have a lot of information stored digitally on your Intranet systems - whether it's Sharepoint, file servers, or any DMS - you will always be facing the question of how to find the content you're looking for with a few clicks. No doubt about it. The answer is a powerful search engine and you may opt for a stand-alone search solution like Google Search Appliance, Intraclient, or any other relevant tool.

Google Search Appliance is probably the most dominant and probably also the most powrful product on the market. This stand-alone search is just like Google on the Web but restricted to search only your company's systems. This is generally valuable and it may be helpful to have a Google Search Appliance in your company. Google Search Appliance helps especially if you have a lot of documents like Microsoft Word-, Excel-, Powerpoint, or PDF files as this can index the content of such file formats and make it searchable.

Getting Away from Stand-alone Documents

However, the problem with such an approach is that it encourages people to keep on creating stand-alone documents. Proprietary document formats are hindering for real collaboration in teams, departments, and company-wide.  Changes are difficult to track, different document versions will inadvertedly become scattered throughout the company over different systems, inboxes and file servers. Stand-alone documents discourage people from working collaboratively, making small changes at a time.

In contrast, enabling people to collaborate in a Wiki like Confluence promotes real collaboration. This forces all content to be in one central place. What's not in the Wiki, doesn't exist at all. Changes can be tracked easily and people are encouraged to make progress incrementally at their own pace, even in very small steps, because the hurdle to make a change is low. Ultimately, this fosters full transparency. Everyone knows where the most recent content is to be found and there is no risk of working with outdated content while someone else has created a newer document somewhere without everyones knowledge.

This is why we believe that the future of collaboration and the future of enterprise content does not lie in documents. The IT industry today has already become aware of this and it is common sense among most experts today. So, you do better not want to deal with many individual documents. Instead, you want to collaborate on a Web interface and if required, maybe export a PDF file afterwards to send it to your customer or a co-worker. Better even, just send them a link.

Promoting Real Collaboration

Taking the above into account, tools like Google Search Appliance don't play such a big role anymore.  If you get your employees to work with content in an agnostic format in a Wiki, then you will most likely use the built-in search of that Wiki.  In a system like Atlassian Confluence, a universal search function is included. This means that you have the power of something like Google Search Appliance within a built-in Wiki search. All Wiki content is indexed and searchable. Using semantic keywords, tags and content filters are standard features which allow you to find all content that was created collaboratively within seconds.

Brilliantly, this helps you promote real collaboration in agnostic formats with the added benefit of having all features of a central search like Google Search Appliance. Wiki systems like Confluence are also able to index attached files in proprietary formats, so you don't lose anything as long as all content lies within the Wiki.

Can't have Your Cake and Eat It

At the same time, there are drawbacks to using built-in search systems such as the one in Confluence. Confluence's search function is based on Apache Lucene, an open source enterprise search appliance. While Lucene is a well-built, widely used search engine, it falls short in the ranking performance when compared to Google. This means that the search results may not be of such high quality as those returned by Google, and that you may find results ranked highly that are not at all relevant to your query.

Google has a lot of experience in developing search engines and they really know how to rank pages well due to their vast experience in the matter. So, Google is probably still better in returning relevant documents even with complex queries.

However, Google Search Appliance is able to index Web- and Wiki pages just as well as proprietary document content. Confluence content could therefore also be indexed and one could argue that Google does not favor documents over pages. For Confluence, it is definitely true that native content, that is Wiki content, has a higher chance of being ranked better than content from attached files. That is something to be considered in the discussion.

Conclusion

From our point of view, using a stand-alone search tool such as Google Search Appliance has a significant drawback. It does not promote collaboration and in the case of Google, it incurs siginificant additional costs.

In general, however, an Intranet search system is a valuable, powerful tool to help find content quickly. Whether it is Google Search Appliance, Apache Lucene - which could also be deployed indepent from Confluence - or your built-in search in the Wiki or Intranet, index-based search is an integral part of smart information management in today's data-driven world.

Background

This page was inspired by the following question on Quora: Would an intranet search tool benefit your company? How?

"I'm interested in knowing how much of a need intranet search is to various types of companies, what kind of use cases they have, and if any existing search tools are being used within those companies. Would help if you give some context on the industry your company is in and the size of the company"

 

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