Weighing The Desktop Search Pros And Cons

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The “in” item for big four of the search industry (Google, Yahoo, MSN, and, Ask Jeeves) is Desktop Search utilities. By early next year, all the major search platforms will/should have a branded, functional Desktop Search (DTS) model for the masses to use.

Desktop Search
The Desktop Search Phenomenon

Desktop Search is spreading like wildfire. Do you use any of these utilities? Discuss at WebProWorld.

Currently, Google and MSN have working public beta models of their DTS utility, while Ask’s should be available at any time. Not to be outdone, Yahoo has also announced that they will be providing a DTS utility in early 2005.

To be sure, search engines aren’t the only companies considering entering the desktop search “industry.” ISP leader America Online announced a partnership with popular DTS developer Copernic. AOL is offering members the opportunity to download an AOL-branded search utility, powered by Copernic’s software. And last, but certainly not least, Apple will also be including Spotlight, their version of desktop search, in the next version of their operating system.

For a thorough look at each DTS utility, PC Magazine has reviews of most all of the available utilities, save Copernic. Andy Beal has a look at the upcoming Ask tool. Seattle PI’s Microsoft Blog has an interesting compare and contrast of MSN’s desktop search and Apple’s Spotlight.

With so many different DTS utilities becoming available, some have begun asking, “What’s the point?” SearchEngineWatch forum member Pdstein shared a similar curiosity by asking “but what is all the hubbub about desktop search? Sure it’s useful, but why are SE companies climbing over each other to offer this ap? What’s in it for them?” Because the business model side of DTS hasn’t been fully explored, the responses were given in theoretical form.

One such member, KeywordMonkey, offered one very possible scenario to tap into the financial potential of desktop search:

  • Advertising alongside results (after Betas)
  • Marketshare – if I use MSN Toolbar for desktop search, I’ll probably use for Web, too. And maybe MSN Messenger, Hotmail, MSN blogs…
  • (Possibly) gathering search trend data and selling it on
  • (Possibly) selling add-ons to free desktop search tools that connect them to enterprise search solutions
  • Personalization and localization of web search results via user profile in tool / related service profile (MSN Passport, Yahoo accounts)
  • The above motives for developing a DTS utility are all sound. However, because of the nature of many of these tools, a few security issues have started popping up that may damage their monetary potential unless they are addressed.

    In an article that appeared on ZDNet AU, Munir Kotadia looked at some of the potential security risks some of the DTS tools hold. His piece detailed what many security experts have been stating since before Google’s desktop search utility launched. One of the main points portrayed in Munir’s article revolves around the indexing process that’s inherent to tools of this nature.

    Because indexing stores information like email addresses, financial information and other personal information, virus writers can and probably will target this technology with a new generation of malicious programs. As always, the security community advises the use of virus removers and up-to-date patches to fight current and potential threats. Preventative measures, as opposed to reactive ones, are the primary way to ensure protection that and being permanently offline.

    Google Desktop Search also received a measure of this criticism as well. A number of publications reported that GDS contained security risks that could be exploited by the virus community. In his blog, security guru Bruce Schneier detailed the threats contained by Google’s tool. “The problem is that GDS indexes and finds documents that you may prefer not be found. For example, GDS searches your browser’s cache. This allows it to find old Web pages you’ve visited, including online banking summaries, personal messages sent from Web e-mail programs and password-protected personal Web pages.” Because GDS does its job exactly how it was designed, an unprotected computer with the utility installed could very well be a target.

    However, Schneier defends Google’s product BECAUSE it does what it was developed to do. “GDS is very good at searching. It’s so good that it exposes vulnerabilities on your computer that you didn’t know about. And now that you know about them, pressure your software vendors to fix them. Don’t shoot the messenger.”

    Google’s tool wasn’t the only tool to receive criticism either. Yahoo, who will be releasing their X-1 powered DTS tool in January, also had some jabs thrown their way. I, Brian at SearchEngineWatch had an interesting comment concerning the upcoming launch of Yahoo’s tool, “More importantly, it shows that Google are dictating terms for search and personal advertising, and Microsoft seem to be doing a better job of keeping up on the application side. However, it’s the mobiles market where things are really going to get heated”

    Brian’s statement is reflective of the entire search engine industry as a whole. It is an ever growing, ever evolving entity. While desktop search is the new thing for search engine departments to focus on, the previous statement also contains a glimpse of the upcoming future. But the future of desktop search is now; that is until Microsoft’s Longhorn or Apple’s Spotlight integrates ALL search into one utility and the other companies have to adapt their product in order to keep up.

    However, once desktop search becomes more popular, expect virus writers to target these utilities. And since these risks aren’t necessarily flaws, protection will be up to the user.

    Chris Richardson is a search engine writer and editor for WebProNews. Visit WebProNews for the latest search news.

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