Building a Better Mousetrap: The Search Engines and Your Desktop

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Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said: "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." But if Emerson lived today, and he had to find an e-mail about a lecture he was giving at Harvard or was searching for a quote he wrote about quotations but couldn't remember the name of the file, he might have modified his original complaint. "Build a better desktop search application and the world will download it in droves, severely draining your bandwidth."


The need for a better way to search your own computer grew out of technological advances in searching the Web. It became painfully clear that something was wrong when you could search billions of Web pages for a particular phrase in a matter of seconds, but it took forever to find a file on your PC -- even when you knew the name of the file.


If all you knew was some text from the file, it was pretty much hopeless. If you were looking for a certain e-mail in Outlook or another e-mail program, it was often easier asking someone to resend it to you than searching for it with the program's search features.


Luckily, the companies that made us aware of the problem entered to solve it. The difference between the instantaneous searching of the Web and the ungainly, slow searching of our computers is the difference between a search engine and the find feature built into computer programs. Search engines are constantly running, crawling the Web and indexing it. When you conduct a search in Google or Yahoo, you are searching a well-organized index, not the Web.


The result you get from an engine is an entry in the index that points to a Web site. When you search your PC, you are actually looking through files, one by one, trying to find the file you wanted. Because a PC only has a couple thousand files, this method is tolerable, albeit slow. By comparison, searching the 8 billion pages now indexed by Google with this method for, say, "DM News," would take years.


So the engines ported their technology to your desktop. While your computer is idle or has processing power to spare, the desktop search applications index all the files on your computer, organizing them to make searching local files as quick and painless as searching for sites online. All three major engines, and many other engines and companies, have introduced desktop search applications. Some integrate into your browser; some act as a standalone program. Some index e-mails while some index music and video.


Which is best for the user? Which holds the most potential as an advertising tool?


Search leader Google was the first to release a desktop search product, which it recently took out of beta. Google Desktop boasts an easy installation and indexes your PC very quickly (note that your e-mail program must be open in order to index e-mails). Google Desktop excels in its ease-of-use and its simple, unobtrusive integration into your system.


To use Google Desktop, simply go to Google.com and select Desktop from the above links. Even when you conduct regular Web searches, Google shows a couple results from your desktop. If you are offline, double-clicking on the Desktop Search taskbar icon brings up a local Google Desktop Search screen.


Google Desktop Search indexes e-mails from Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird and Netscape Mail; Web history from Firefox, Internet Explorer and Netscape; all Office file types, such as Word or Excel documents; chat transcripts from AIM; music and video files; PDFs; images; and other text documents.


It can search for text within e-mails, Web history, chats, Office and text documents. Searching e-mails is Google's strong point: The program shows a text-only version of the e-mail on the screen, or you can choose to open the e-mail in its native program. You can see threads of back-and-forth e-mails, as in Gmail, which helps nail down the correct e-mail quickly and simply. You can even respond to your e-mail straight from Google Desktop.


Google Desktop Search is unique in its indexing of Web history. Searching for that great Web site you found last week? That's where Google really comes in handy. Google also easily finds text within Office documents, though those can be opened only in their respective applications.


Google has trouble finding documents by file names and doesn't index information about music or video files, like whom the artist is, or text within a PDF file. But Google seems to be the fastest desktop search application to index new files, usually displaying up-to-the-second results. Google's strength is its integration into your search bar. You don't need any new software or toolbars to benefit from Google Desktop Search.


Yahoo search is by far the most robust of the bunch. Yahoo indexes e-mails (Outlook and Outlook Express), nearly all file types, music, contacts and even e-mail attachments. Yahoo Desktop Search not only indexes file names, but also includes thorough information about those files. It can index text within PDF files, which no other desktop search application can do. Yahoo can find music files by artist, even if the artist name isn't included in the name of the file.


Yahoo Desktop Searches are performed from either the Yahoo Desktop program or from a toolbar installed in Outlook. Though this may be seen as an extra step over Google, the versatile and productive Yahoo application more than makes up for it. Within the program, you can preview any type of file, including PDFs, PowerPoints, Excel and other spreadsheets -- even music and video files.


Where applicable, your keywords are highlighted to help find data within the document. From within the program, you can respond and work on e-mails, send files as an attachment, print files, open their parent directories and delete files. Unlike any other desktop search application, Yahoo searches on the fly, narrowing your results as your query gets longer and more complex. This addition lets you easily find exactly the file you need.


Yahoo's only drawbacks are that you can't easily pause indexing if you need to do something private on your PC, which you can do in Google and MSN, and its lack of Web history and support for Thunderbird. Otherwise, it stands head and shoulders above the rest.


MSN's entry into the desktop search market met with the same icy welcome as its new search engine. The desktop search program can be installed only with the Microsoft Toolbar Suite. If you don't want another toolbar, too bad. And the default for the toolbar is for it to be displayed everywhere: Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer and Outlook or Outlook Express.


MSN also suffers by not offering any preview of files. The program's surviving strength is the speed at which it indexes and finds files. MSN Desktop also offers an option to pause indexing.


Ask Jeeves also introduced a desktop search application recently, but it is still in need of work. It indexes at a much slower rate and doesn't set up as easily as its competitors (it requires profiles to be manually added from Outlook instead of figuring that out itself). Once running, it does a fair job of searching for textual documents, but stutters on more complex searches. Like Yahoo, it is not easy to pause.


Considering how new a field desktop search is for the major search engines, their products are surprisingly polished and effective. All applications need to index more types of files, especially from e-mail programs other than Outlook. While e-mail remains the main purpose of these programs, it is important to be able to respond to and work with e-mails from the desktop application, as Google and Yahoo allow.


Desktop search needs to be easily integrated into our current search behavior. While Google's product is not the best, it is the only one that does its best to mimic online search behavior, and has thus become the most popular.


Soon, engines will open the desktop search to advertisers. Google Desktop, since it is set up like an Internet search page, will be the easiest to integrate with ads. The right side of the page, usually filled with ads, is blank in Desktop searches -- for now.


Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves all have some limited space in their programs for generic or keyword-based banner ads. All four programs also offer Web search as well. If you can't find it on your computer, you'll check the Web and the regular PPC advertising will be waiting for you.


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