As the amount of data organizations create continues to mushroom, they’re all dealing with the same challenge: how to enable their employees to find the answers they need to do their jobs when the information is hidden in different sources, including email servers, databases, network drives, cloud drives, and countless SaaS apps. When workers can’t find the information they need to stay productive, the effectiveness of the entire business suffers.
What organizations need are tools that allow workers to search for information across multiple sources inside the enterprise. Enterprise search software does just that, offering a single application that provides total access to all enterprise content — from HR policies and help desk documents to marketing materials and ongoing project discussions — no matter where it resides.
These tools identify and retrieve information from every data type companies store, including structured data, found in databases, as well as unstructured data that comes in a variety of file formats, such social media posts, email, chats, and Internet of Things (IoT) sensor data.
Some enterprise search platforms incorporate external-facing features such as ecommerce or customer service search as part of the core feature set or as add-on modules. In this guide we’ve focused primarily on internal search as a knowledge management tool for employees.
“Enterprise search lets people find information and knowledge in their corpus of documents, content, and databases,” said Mike Gualtieri, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. “The benefit to an organization is that employees can access the information they need immediately.”
Industry analysts say that enterprise search is morphing into technology that helps businesses synthesize information by ingesting, organizing, and analyzing data from enterprise data sources to give employees precise insights and answers to important business questions. Forrester calls this new search category “cognitive search,” while Gartner refers to these tools as “insight engines.”
How enterprise search tools work
Most of the vendors in this space have connectors that allow enterprises to plug into various data sources, such as databases, cloud storage, and storage networks that contain PDFs, Gualtieri said. These connectors can crawl these data sources to extract data out of the source, whether it’s structured or unstructured data, and send it to the index where it will be processed and stored.
Additionally, these connectors can extract content out of the source system by forming an API connection between the data source and the index, gathering the content from the source and pushing it to the index to be processed and stored, without having to directly access the data source itself.
“The index is built by connecting to the different data and information sources,” said Stephen Emmott, senior director and analyst at Gartner. “Those connectors are key to this capability; they provide a link between the index and the sources of the content and data.”
Pitfalls of enterprise search software
“One of the key pitfalls is [not] being able to connect to the different repositories and [not] having the right connectors in place to ensure that all of those information sources are connected to and can be indexed,” Emmott said.
Another problem is the relevancy of the information or precision in the search results, he said.
Enterprise search tools typically use rankings to help employees find content and information. However, that static “findability” — the ease with which information can be found — isn’t enough to ensure a positive search experience for every user, because there’s no guarantee that the information they find is really what they need.
For example, two customer support representatives could be looking for different things when they search for “customer returns” One may be looking to find out how many customers returned items in the previous month, while the other may want information on the types of items customers return.
If enterprise search tools use only standard functionality, they will present both users the same content first — content that’s ranked as the most relevant to the query “customer returns” — instead of information based on the context and intent of the person searching for the information.
Key features to look for in enterprise search
There are a number of features enterprises should look for when they’re selecting enterprise search tools, including:
1. Support for the right data sources
Companies must ensure they choose tools that support the data sources they have in place now and those they plan to implement in the future. An enterprise search tool could support 250 data source connectors, but it’s not the right tool for you if it doesn’t support the data sources your organization maintains.
Note that in addition to providing native connectors, some enterprise search tools support third-party connectors and/or offer APIs for organizations that wish to write their own custom connectors.
2. Smart recommendations
When enterprise search tools provide recommendations, it’s not enough for those tools to merely suggest the same results to every user. Enterprise search tools that employ artificial intelligence (AI) can offer recommendations based on the interests and search behaviors of other employees whose profiles are similar to the profile of the current user.
Because AI-based recommendations give weight to context as well as user profiles, the recommendations are more relevant and give employees the information they want at the right time. Recommendations should also be based on the employees’ roles, locations, interests, and preferences.
3. An intuitive and user-friendly interface
As with any system, an organization can implement a great enterprise search tool, but it won’t be successful if employees won’t use it. Whether workers decide to use a particular system depends on how intuitive and user-friendly it is. Consequently, enterprises should implement a search tool designed with the user in mind, one that offers a world-class user interface. The tool should also offer user-friendly options, such as filters to help users improve their search results.
4. Support for different types of search
Modern enterprise search tools should allow users to conduct:
- Natural language (conversational) searches to mirror those offered by Google, Bing, and other consumer search tools.
- Multimedia searches to enable users to search images and video content that typically is not searchable.
- Multilingual searches to cater to the needs of workers around the world.
5. Analytics capabilities
Enterprise search tools can do more than just search data and provide relevant results. Those that include search analytics can give organizations the insights they need to better understand how their employees interact with different functions and enable them to enhance user adoption and improve the user experience.
6. Role-based access
As with any corporate software, enterprise search platforms should protect company data with ID and access management tools. Many enterprise search tools allow administrators to limit access to specific data sources, document types, and more based on employee roles, ensuring that employees don’t see sensitive data unless their job permits it.
Additional considerations: Security and pricing
The platforms should offer enterprise-grade encryption of data in transit and at rest. Look for one or more pages on the vendor’s website outlining its security, regulatory compliance, and privacy practices, or ask the vendor for that information.
Pricing models vary greatly among enterprise search vendors — costs might be based on number of indexed documents, number of queries, compute resources used, hourly or monthly usage fees, monthly or annual subscription fees, or some combination thereof. (Google’s and Microsoft’s enterprise search tools are included with their office suite subscriptions, with no extra charge.) Be sure to clarify with the vendor how you will be charged. Some vendors include pricing calculators to help customers predict their costs.
10 leading enterprise search tools
There are a number of enterprise search tools on the market, so to help you begin your research, we’ve highlighted the following products based on discussions with analysts and independent research.
Powered by machine learning, Amazon Kendra enables employees and customers to find information from across multiple content sources and locations within the business using natural language questions or simple keywords. In addition to linking to relevant documents, the tool delivers suggested answers from within documents up front so users don’t have to sift through long lists of documents to find the answers they need.
A managed cloud service, Amazon Kendra provides native connectors for data sources including Amazon S3, ServiceNow, Microsoft SharePoint Online, Salesforce, Google Drive, and Amazon RDS; dozens of third-party connectors are also available, and customers can create custom connectors using the Amazon Kendra SDK. (See Amazon Kendra security info.)
A cloud service, Coveo securely unifies information from a variety of cloud and on-premises sources to help employees, enterprise partners, and customers get the information they need. Powered by AI, Coveo’s features include dynamic content filtering, text analysis, reporting, data encryption, role-based access control, and data residency control. The Smart Snippets feature uses contextual cues to deliver personalized answers right on the results page.
The company offers native integrations with Salesforce, ServiceNow, and Sitecore; dozens of pre-built connectors for third-party platforms including Slack, SharePoint, Zendesk, and Google Drive; and an API that lets organizations create custom connectors. (See Coveo security info.)
Elastic Workplace Search
A unified search platform for companies of all sizes, Elastic Workplace Search provides a consumer-like search experience that lets employees search all their organizations’ content and applications from a single place. The tool adapts results for each worker, identifying documents, records, and files based on what is important to each employee.
Out of the box, Elastic Workplace Search can connect to content sources including Google Workspace, Slack, Salesforce, the Atlassian product suite, Box, Microsoft SharePoint, and GitHub, and companies can connect other data sources via a custom source API. Workplace Search is part of the Elastic Enterprise Search bundle, which can be deployed on the vendor’s Elastic Cloud service or on-premises. (See Elastic security info.)
Google Cloud Search
Available only to customers using Google Workspace Business and Enterprise editions, Google Cloud Search enables business users to easily search for content and data across Workspace services, including Gmail, Calendar, Meet, Chat, Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Forms, and Sites, as well as Salesforce, SAP, and dozens of other third-party data sources, using their laptops, mobile phones, or tablets.
The tool uses Google’s search capabilities to help users enter queries, see search suggestions, and find the content and answers that apply to their questions. Google Cloud Search also shows employees assist cards that link to files in Google Drive that they recently worked on as well as upcoming meetings in Google Calendar. (See Google Workspace security info.)
IBM Watson Discovery
An intelligent search and text-analytics platform, IBM Watson Discovery uses natural language processing to answer employee and customer questions. The platform quickly provides answers on complex topics by excerpting key passages from content sources, as well as providing entire documents and supporting links, enabling users to make informed decisions.
Discovery also helps companies monitor trends, identify patterns, and uncover meaningful business insights from documents, web pages, and other data sources including Salesforce, Box, and Microsoft SharePoint. Discovery can be deployed on-premises or as a managed cloud service. (See IBM Watson security info.)
iFinder helps employees find important documents and data, whether they’re located on the intranet, in wikis, on a company drive, or in email systems, via natural-language search. Using artificial intelligence, iFinder delivers smart enterprise search functionality that identifies connections and recognizes context.
iFinder can index over 600 file formats, including audio and video files as well as scanned documents. Companies can deploy iFinder on-premises, in the cloud, as SaaS, or as a managed service. The platform offers more than 80 connectors for data sources including Google Drive, OneDrive, Box, WordPress, Salesforce, Jira, Microsoft Teams, and Exchange, and administrators can limit search results, filters, autocomplete suggestions, documents, and data sources based on employee role. (Contact iFinder for security info.)
A cloud-based data discovery platform, Lucidworks Fusion helps organizations turn data into personalized insights for employees and customers. Aiming to provide employees with the same type of personalization at work that they get from consumer applications, the tool uses machine learning to understand user intent so it can provide the right content related to their location, department, or job title, no matter where the data is stored.
Microsoft Search, which is embedded in Microsoft products, lets users search across Microsoft 365 from any Microsoft Search box and helps them find the information they need to complete tasks in the applications that they’re working in. Users can search for organizational charts, files, or answers to common questions, for example. Microsoft Search uses insights from the Microsoft Graph to personalize results for each user, suggesting searches and results based on their previous activity in Microsoft 365 and content that’s trending in their organization.
Search combines results from various Microsoft 365 data sources, including OneDrive for Business, Exchange, and SharePoint; companies can also index data from third-party sources including Amazon S3, Box, Confluence, Salesforce, Googe Drive, and Slack via Microsoft Graph connectors. (See Microsoft 365 security info.)
Mindbreeze InSpire, a cloud-based insights management tool, helps enterprises collect and consolidate information about employees, customers, and operations from multiple data sources, with more than 450 connectors available as well as direct integrations with Microsoft Outlook, SharePoint, and Salesforce. InSpire automatically offers different workers or groups different views of information based on their specific roles, even if they use the same data sources.
The tool includes a built-in document preview capability that enables users to see the available documents and track their revision history. Organizations can also design custom search apps using filters, widgets, themes, and other elements. (Contact Mindbreeze for security info.)
Sinequa Enterprise Search
Sinequa Enterprise Search was built especially for large, complex organizations whose needs are constantly evolving. With the Sinequa platform, organizations can connect data from enterprise applications, such as customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning systems, as well as from files, documents, and email in different languages. Companies can use dozens of pre-built connectors for common apps and platforms or develop their own custom connectors.
Sinequa Enterprise Search’s simple interface uses natural language processing and machine learning to deliver information and insights to employees in context, without requiring them to have any particular expertise. The platform enforces information access controls from source systems, so employees only see data their role entitles them to. Sinequa can be deployed on-premises, in the cloud, or within a hybrid environment. (See Sinequa security info.)