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More and more information is saved electronically rather than being jammed into file cabinets. This presents some interesting problems when trying to find a document, photo, fax, or the virtual equivalent of a Post-It® Note. We all know how hard it can be to find a piece of paper placed in a manila folder that is slipped into a hanging folder that ends up in a file drawer somewhere.

The electronic equivalent is a file placed in a folder within another folder saved on a storage device somewhere on the network. As if that's not difficult enough, you may not even know the file format or type of the information. Is it a word-processing document, a simple text file, a PDF file or an image? Good luck trying to find it!

Thankfully, several vendors are offering solutions to this problem and more are on the way. We are all experiencing information overload to varying degrees. The right tools can make us better organized and more effective.

Search tools fall into one of three categories: web, desktop and enterprise. Each serves different needs though there is some overlap in their features and functions. Let's look at the web search category first because it's the one most business people use on a regular basis.

Web search tools

Google did not invent the web search but they epitomize the category. Web search tools abound. There are literally hundreds of them but only a few are widely used. In addition to Google, the most common are AllTheWeb, AOL, Ask Jeeves, HotBot, MSN, Open Directory (DMOZ), Teoma and Yahoo.

Why so many search companies? The field is young and growing rapidly. Search services vary widely in the quality and quantity of information provided. All of these tools scour the Internet creating links or references to words and phrases. If you cannot find what you need using a particular service, try another. There are also special-purpose search services that target particular types of information. For example, WebMD is focused on medical information. For an in-depth overview of web search tools, check out Search Engine Watch

Be sure to use your browser's "favorites" or "bookmarks" feature. Save the links to websites of interest and keep them organized by creating folders of related sites. For example, you might create folders called Finance, News, Sports, Search, etc. where each contains links to sites that fit the category.

Desktop search tools

Desktop search is a rapidly evolving market niche also. Google has attracted a lot of attention to this category via its launch of the "Google Desktop" tool (in beta test). Desktop search is not a new idea.

In fact, Windows has contained a desktop search feature for years. The feature has limitations on file types and search strings but for many people it has been an adequate solution.

As the amount of information we have to manage grows, so does the need for better desktop search tools. There are several vendors in or about to enter the space. They include AOL (beta), Ask Jeeves (beta), BlinkX, Copernic, HotBot, Microsoft (beta), X1, Yahoo (beta). As with web search tools, features vary widely and so does performance. Most of these tools are free.

The tools work by creating an index or catalog of all searchable information on your hard drive. Generating the index initially takes some time but it greatly speeds up future searches. The index may also occupy substantial storage space so having ample storage capacity is important.

You will probably have to try multiple tools to find one that works well on your system. Look for a tool that performs well on your hardware and can find the type of information you have saved. For example, if finding information saved in e-mail messages is important, a tool that can read through files created by your e-mail program, including attachments, is essential.

Enterprise search tools

The last category is enterprise search. The major vendors are Autonomy (Enterprise Search Server), Convera (RetrievalWare), Fast (ESP), Google (Search Appliance), Microsoft (SharePoint), and Verity (Ultraseek and K2).

These tools are installed on a network server and can find information stored anywhere on the network, including desktops, as long as they have been allowed access to the information.

Enterprise search covers a lot of ground from basic searching to advanced application development. Capabilities and performance vary widely. While basic search features are common to all, ease of use, performance and relevance of results create winners and losers. Some vendors employ sophisticated algorithms to identify concepts of interest, not just keywords. While they are to be applauded for effort, the search results can be lengthy and off target.

The features to look for in an enterprise search solution include cross-platform support (Windows, Macintosh, Unix, Linux, etc.), scalability, international language support, and security. This last item can present a problem. Some workers will need access to information that others should not be allowed to see. Thus the search tool must disallow access to those unauthorized to retrieve confidential information. Try before you buy.

While no search tool provides a panacea, they all offer some valuable benefits. As the volume of information we have to manage explodes, the time spent searching can balloon into a serious productivity issue. Find out how much time you and your co-workers spend searching for information each day. The answers may surprise you. Now calculate the dollar cost based on whatever value criteria your firm uses. The right search tool could save you 75% or more of that cost.

Maybe you should start searching for that new search tool right away.

Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO™. He is an expert in leveraging open software to drive growth. DAMICON provides Freelance Technical Writing, IT Disaster Response Planning, and Network Security Management services to firms throughout New England.

This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in January 2005.

To learn more about how DAMICON can help your business, please take a look at our service programs.

Virtual Business

Virtual Business

This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.