Is Google Enterprise Search Back? Or Just Copying SharePoint with Suite-Wide Intelligent Search?

Springboard, a new search facility within Google Apps, was announced Monday along with an update to Google Sites. Springboard provides a unified search facility that ties together Google Apps for Work, and will also uncover files located in any Google business app, including Google Drive, Gmail and contacts.

It has some of the flavor of Google Now, Google’s intelligent personal assistant – in that it uses your behavior and Machine Learning for “proactively providing useful and actionable information and recommendations.” I doubt I’ll want to say “OK Google, Shazam this song” while using it, so it will be interesting to see it in action and assess the level of hype versus reality.

This is exciting news. As a member of the Cognitive Computing Consortium, I’ve been seeing more and more applications of machine intelligence to enterprise applications like this one, and I’m super excited about the innovation that is coming to enterprise search. Google Enterprise Search seems a natural application of Google’s highly active (and highly publicized) machine intelligence research.

It is also another punch in the boxing match between Google Apps and Microsoft’s Office 365. However, to my eye, it’s a bit of a slow punch. In fact, it looks remarkably like the new search capability previewed by Microsoft 6 weeks ago as part of “The Future of SharePoint“. (Google also announced a new sites capability that is a counterpart to Microsoft’s new authoring capability in Office 365). Microsoft also has a heavyweight team on machine intelligence, and the Office 365 capabilities rely heavily on the Office Graph, a fabric introduced a bit over 2 years ago that has been maturing rapidly ever since. Google will have some catching up to do.

Is this a Replacement for the GSA? 

Absolutely not.

Enterprise search seems to be a perennially unsolved problem. In fact, the technology and the practices are getting better, but the problem is also getting harder at the same time. As Prabhakar Raghavan, Vice President of Engineering, Google Apps said when announcing Springboard, “It’s no secret that the growth of information inside the enterprise continues to accelerate. In fact, today the average knowledge worker spends the equivalent of one full day a week searching for and gathering information.” Enterprise search is a hard problem, and a valuable problem to solve. It’s also a different problem than the Internet search that made Google’s name synonymous with search.

Raghavan highlighted that Google had been in Enterprise Search for 15 years. However, Google signaled that it was exiting the enterprise search market just 4 months ago when they sunsetted the Google Search Appliance. At the time, they mentioned they were “working on a new cloud-based product which is now in limited beta” – and here it is. Unfortunately for current GSA customers, Springboard doesn’t look like a viable replacement for most of them.

There’s a population that has been using the GSA for site search only; they have a likely path to using Google Site Search. And clearly those that use the GSA only for its integration to Google Apps will be able to use Springboard. But most others will still be looking for a solution.

First and foremost, Springboard only includes content that lives within google apps, and the vast majority of organizations have their content spread across lots of systems. For true enterprise search you need connectors. These will probably evolve with Springboard. But we have a lot of experience here, and easy-to-configure connectivity to a mass-scale SaaS system is a hard problem. BA Insight’s products that add external content into Office 365 search use hooks from Microsoft that don’t exist for Google Apps today. So don’t hold your breath waiting for this from Google.

Secondly, many people are still looking for a standalone facility they can control and run, or for an on-premises capability that allows them to accommodate compliance requirements such as content with data residency restrictions.

There is a lot still to learn about Springboard, and it will undoubtedly evolve. But it’s already clear that this is not a replacement for the GSA. It’s an intelligent search/recommendation facility aimed at tying together Google Apps. Really cool, really powerful, but not the same thing.

Can Google Catch up to SharePoint?

David Roe of CMSWire points out that Springboard and Sites are specifically taking on SharePoint online,  given the similarities of springboard with the office graph, and the similarities of the new google sites to SharePoint’s new publishing pages. To quote his article:

  • “If both Springboard and Sites have just been made available for early adopters, it will be several months before everyone can get their hands on it.”
  • “Even then, it still doesn’t come close to SharePoint, nor does Raghavan ever claim that it is meant to. This is just another step in the ongoing development of Google for Work, albeit an important one.”

Google Apps is inexpensive, but Office 365 has an extremely compelling proposition for business. The search and discovery facilities that are built in are powerful, intelligent, and have a large team of smart people working on them. And they have a strong ecosystem of partners, including some great search specialists (such as BA Insight).

Microsoft is moving fast and seems to have finally figured out the cloud-service rhythm. Microsoft also never walked away from Enterprise Search. They’ve kept a strong facility that works on-prem, in the cloud, or hybrid while adding the Office Graph in the cloud.

A Glowing Halo on Stumbling Feet?

Even as a close partner of Microsoft, I would not count Google out. O365/Google Apps competition seems to be is heating up, especially at the lower end of the market. Google has a master plan for this, including tactics like giving away Google Apps to Microsoft Office customers on Enterprise Agreements for free.

Google also has some incredible technology, amazing talent, and deep pockets.   And there is a well-known “halo effect” with google search, whether it’s better or not.   Techcrunch’s coverage of Springboard underlines this when it says “But there’s one thing that Google is, and has always been, better at than its rivals at Microsoft: Search.”   That’s not actually true, but everyone thinks it is – there’s that halo.

Google seems to have been stumbling in their enterprise business.   Though their stated goal is to transcend being an advertising company by 2020, this is happening on many fronts.  The enterprise business has had some ups and downs.  Matt Kapko outlines some of the challenges in his CIO magazine piece, “Why Google’s enterprise search pitch is a confusing mess“.

There’s some uncanny similarities now between Springboard and Office 365’s search.  I don’t know who’s copying who, but it’s clear that there’s a battle going on.  At the very least, this will drive some exciting innovation and deliver important new capabilities to customers.

Search Engine Agnosticism 

At BA Insight, we don’t believe that there is a “best” search engine for all purposes. You should be able to take advantage of what you own, switch it out with something that is better for the applications you are running, or mix and match multiple search engines, without disrupting everything.

Whether Springboard is better than SharePoint search and the Office Graph is an interesting question, but it’s the wrong question. These are both very powerful and innovative technologies and they are different, so they will each have differentiators that make them better for some things. I am sure we’ll figure out how to include Springboard in solutions, in the same way that we do today for the GSA. The only sure thing is that the search technology is not going to stand still, there’s a lot of innovation yet to come from major players and startups alike.

Watch this space. I personally can’t wait to get hands-on with Springboard and play with it, and I’ll report back when I do.

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