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Zoho Search Fills an Important Gap in Cloud Business Suite
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Posted On June 10, 2010
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Zoho offers small and medium-sized business a whole range of applications, from email to invoicing, without having to install any local applications. The current buzzword for this is "cloud services." This makes a lot of sense, because dealing with servers and ISPs can be very difficult and expensive, taking resources away from the core business. Zoho provides these kinds of automation, and is now allowing users to search across all of the apps, much like an ideal intranet search. And, like an intranet search, the search engine won't find a thing unless you are logged in.

In the early 2000s, Salesforce.com provided the first "killer app," for cloud services: a specialized workflow system for high-end sales people. Other companies were providing these tools within the enterprise, but they were (and still are) expensive software on internal servers with fleets of IT workers and consultants working on implementation for months or years. Salesforce.com bypassed all that-because they did all the configuration and maintenance somewhere in their server farm. And, because sales people travel all the time, having access from anywhere on the internet was so important that it often outweighed other considerations.

At the same time, a number of companies started offering search services, crawling sites and storing index data for later searching. These included SearchButton, Atomz (now Omniture/Adobe site search), FreeFind, FusionBot, and Google Custom Search. They started offering free search, and then either went to a paid service or started putting ads on search results. While Salesforce managed to convince companies that their confidential data would be protected, the cloud search services never made it into the intranet or enterprise search field, because they could not answer concerns about security and access control.

Between then and now, several companies, including Zoho, have had success with cloud-based business services. The new versions of the Microsoft Office suites were just launched on June 8, 2010, probably because Microsoft was reluctant to cannibalize its own installed base. OpenOffice is a free open-source set of applications that match Microsoft Office on the desktop. Google Apps are offering some of the same services, but not others such as HR management. Other companies in the field are IBM for its email and somewhat elderly Lotus-based applications, and Salesforce itself in CRM (Customer Relationship Management). None of these systems has seamless search through all the data stored in their various repositories.

Zoho had the good idea to change that. The modules it currently searches are the Zoho Mail, Writer, Sheet, Show, Docs, Notebook, and Discussions apps, which it displays in separate sections on the results page. Unfortunately, the current interface fails to give any context, (no log on form), and will never retrieve anything until the user logs in. Once logged-in, the interface is nearly as stark, but after doing a search, the results are quite helpful (see screenshots).

So how does it rate as a search engine? It's not Google, Solr, or Endeca, but as a first step, it's not bad.

Zoho company spokesperson Sridhar K. Sundaram says that it takes about five or ten minutes from the data entry to be added to the searchable index. Zoho has the advantage that it knows when content changes and can proactively send those changes to the indexer. It would be nice to get that down to one minute, which would be near-real-time search.

Some metadata is indexed, such as the subject line for the message. The search engine also will index and search on some extended characters, such as and §, but I couldn't test for non-Roman scripts. The default search will find only records that contain all query terms, but Zoho supports the Boolean AND OR NOT operators, the Internet Query Operators + -, and the quote marks for phrase queries. There are no Best Bets or automatic synonym query expansions, but Sridhar says that the company expects to have spelling suggestions soon. Levels of access control in the original sources are kept with the search document store, so no one can find a record they are not allowed to see.

Relevance in the results list seems fine; the ranking algorithm is based on the standard TF-IDF (Term Frequency - Inverse Document Frequency) equations. There's no way to adjust the relevance to favor a specific topic, type, or author, which can avoid some weird results. In a context like this, allowing users to filter by date would be enormously helpful.

The results are nicely organized by app, and the list on the left gives quick access to each app set, but these are really search filters, rather than dynamic navigation or faceted metadata. There are no branding or results layout tools; apparently, Zoho's standard is to use the functional interfaces and very little customization beyond some widget objects in some apps. Sundaram says that Zoho expects to offer an API and output results in both XML and JSON.

Opening into a new tab with some of the creating app features is a nice idea, particularly for those very used to the system. While the marketing for this part of the service emphasizes this feature, it's not terribly revolutionary compared to desktop search engines on Mac OS X, Linux, and finally on Windows 7.

Logistically, Sundaram says that there is a proprietary grid for Zoho services, including the search engine. It can configure additional nodes during any sudden loads or slow response times. There are no plans to provide search logs, reports, or analytics, perhaps because this is more like an intranet search than a site or portal search.

Zoho is very right to be proud of its search integration; it's a great idea. The implementation of basic search functionality seems good, but we expect search to just work-and this shows that there are a lot of invisible elements required to "just work."

Vocabulary note: names for this kind of thing have included: remote services, online, web-native, ASP (application service provider), SaaS (Software as a Service), and now cloud services.


Avi Rappoport is available for search engine consulting on both small and large projects.  She is also the editor of www.searchtools.com.

Email Avi Rappoport

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Deepak Vasudevan6/14/2010 10:28:44 AM

Adding a document instantly to the indexer might not be a feasible solution for any hosted platform particularly considering the number of users actively using it at any one point of time. Any such attempt is sure to overwhelm the server.

A delay is normally recommended and the documents could be buffered and sent to the indexer.

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