Demonstrating its commitment to enterprise-level business, Google announced Google OneBox for Enterprise, which it says represents a significant upgrade to its Google Search Appliance, launched last May.
Its determination in this arena is bearing fruit: Google said it has more than 3,000 active enterprise customers, and that revenues at its Google Enterprise division doubled from 2004 to 2005.
The company also announced partnerships with more than 60 business Software vendors, reflecting a growing belief among other players in this space that Google is here to stay.
The partnership agreements allow Google to return more complete results for searches that scour a customer’s network ecosystem.
Google also launched a portal for developers, called Google Enterprise Developer Community, to help business application developers better integrate their products with OneBox.
Dave Girouard, vice president and general manager for Google Enterprise, told internetnews.com that OneBox solves a critical business problem, which is that employees can have trouble locating information because it may be buried in one or several repositories. Those can range from email to customer relationship management or other application databases in corporate intranets or portals–or even a user’s own desktop.
Girouard said OneBox is “an opportunity to really bring all sorts of information to users in a unified fashion.”
While observers agree that being able to search across applications will help business users be more productive, some voiced concerns about whether Google will be able to translate its technical prowess in the consumer arena to the enterprise environment.
OneBox, priced starting at $30,000, is a hardware and software appliance that is installed on corporate networks and indexes all the information contained in file servers, content servers, and business applications. It can be configured by the network administrator to restrict permissions by individual user or department. (Google Mini, a scaled-down version for the small- and medium sized business market, starts at $1995).
In contrast to the consumer version of the Google desktop search application, individual users don’t download the app themselves; the interface is installed remotely by the IT department.
However, the interface is, for all intents and purposes, identical to the Google search interface that people are used to seeing on the Internet. Likewise, search results are returned in a familiar Google hierarchy, with specialized results at the top of the page and more general results further down.
Thus, a user whose company runs Salesforce.com, for example, would see search results from that database at the top of the screen, with results from other areas below that. The rules for the hierarchy would be established by the company’s network administrator, who would also set permissions as needed.
Companies running several applications could conceivably set the Google search results to show results from all of them at the top of the page, but Girouard says there are limits to this.
“We would want to limit special results because you don’t want to push organic results too far down the page. It has to make sense to the user,” he said.
Indeed, one of Google’s selling points is the ubiquity and popularity of its consumer search engine.
“From a usability standpoint, people know how Google works and they are comfortable using it,” noted Jupiter Research analyst Greg Dowling.
The reason Google believes that OneBox solves a big business problem is that it cuts across every application and content repository in a given corporate ecosystem. OneBox includes context-sensitive query expansion, meaning it deals with stemming (understanding the final “s” and ing-endings) and locates content that is synonymous with search terms entered by the user.
The solution also addresses longstanding knowledge management issues that have bedeviled companies for years, said Girouard. Corporate executives often try to establish rules governing how content is to be organized and tagged, but can be stymied by a variety of factors, from organizational resistance to changes in a company’s business.
“A static hierarchy will never keep up with how fast a company grows,” said Girouard.
Search, he said, eliminates the need for folders and content buckets.
“It doesn’t require the information to be organized in any particular fashion,” he said.
But there is search, and then there is search. Is Google really a better search engine at the enterprise level compared to other players, such as Autonomy, FAST, Endeca, or Exalead?
Dowling noted that other enterprise search providers have struggled to make their products intuitive, curtailing adoption by end users.
“They have been struggling with usability issues,” he told internetnews.com.
Jakob Neilsen, a noted search analyst consultant based in Fremont, Calif., agreed that in general, search on intranets is “really suffering.”
However, he cautioned against assuming that just because Google search excels on the World Wide Web, which numbers more than 2 billion pages, it will be equally as effective in a much smaller intranet environment, which for large companies amounts to “just” several hundred thousand pages.
This is because Google’s way of determining relevance on the Web depends on the frequency with which particular sites are hit. The same statistical methodology is not as accurate when dealing with small numbers. (It’s like flipping a coin 10 times and getting 7 heads, as opposed to flipping it 100,000 times, in which case it is much less likely that you’ll get heads 70,000 times.)
“For intranets, they would need some additional tools in place,” he told internetnews.com.
“Random fluctuations impact your results more when you have a smaller sample size,” he said.
Neilsen agreed that unified search is “one good step ahead,” but cautioned that Google still has to demonstrate that it has a better understanding of corporate vocabularies, and that the algorithms recognize archived versus current documents so that search results reflect the true authoritativeness of documents.
Although enterprise is still a small part of the company’s business, it is growing quickly, and Google is committed to this area. Girouard said that his division, which he likened to a start-up within Google, increased revenues by more than 100 percent last year.
“It’s still a very small fraction of the business,” he said. “But it’s a significant, important part of the business.”