Desktop Computer File Search Programs
The world is abuzz about search engines--those clever software tools that scour your hard drive for information. Back in the good old days when all of your information was contained on floppy disks all you needed to do was to find the right shoe box, sort through the floppy disks and find the information you sought. Today the information on our computer desktops is thousands of times more voluminous and because it is hidden away in the secret recess of your of your hard drive it sometimes is very difficult to discover. If you were trained in library science or some other discipline that devoted most of its attention to indexing you probably have all of the information on all of your hard drives organized in a way that allows you to access it immediately. For the rest of us, much of that information is largely lost because it cannot be found. Because lawyers have grown up with Westlaw and Lexis we know that effective searching systems exist, but until recently the efforts to bring that kind of search technology to our desktops has been spotty. Recently, however, Google (in an effort to justify its astronomical stock price) has extended the technology that it uses to search the Internet to your desktop. Google Desktop Search in a beta version is free of and can be downloaded from the website at http://www.google.com/options/index.html. BTW, while you are there check out the various new free tools that Google provides for all kinds of computing tasks. Whether Google Desktop Search is your best choice depends upon a number of things. Google does not allow you to frame careful searches and it has a tendency to tell you more than you want to know. But it is remarkably fast and it has one characteristic of abiding interest to lawyers: it’s free. And while free is certainly good in most instances, there are a number of modestly priced alternatives that are better suited for lawyers.
All of the truly effective of search engines use what is called “indexing” techniques. Indexing looks at every bit of information on your hard drive and puts it into a kind of a database that allows your queries to be answered at high speed. All of you, I’m sure, have had the unfortunate experience of trying to use the various “find” tools supplied with Windows programs. As you know they can be so slow and time consuming that they become virtually worthless. Moreover, those tools search only for a word or a series of words. They cannot do the kind of precise Boolean searching that you’re used to with Westlaw and Lexis. The use of the index overcomes that and thus is the searching technique of choice. There are two downsides to the index technique. First it takes a lot of time to build the index. Building my index in Google took over twelve hours and building the index in the other tools can take a similar amount of time. But if you do it at night when nobody needs to use the computer you wake up in the morning to a new day with a new index and a searching capability beyond your wildest dreams. The second problem with indexing is that it only looks at certain file types and each indexing tool excludes some file types from its index. For example, some searching tools will not index pdf files and since pdf has become an almost standard file format in the legal field those tools are worthless for us. Google and the other tools that I will talk about here all recognize pdf and other standard legal file types and thus are of value to us.
Google Desktop Search
The Google Desktop Search is pretty amazing. It searches your hard drive the same way Google searches the Internet. It is very intelligent and it does not require you to construct in any kind of Boolean search string. You simply type in a general description of the information that you want and click on search. Almost instantaneously you will be presented with list of places where that information can be found, with the most relevant discoveries at the top of the list. Google also searches your most recent internet searches and will search the entire Internet as well if you ask it to. It is a remarkable tool but it has a few flaws. Because of the way its technology is designed, it will not find everything on your hard drive that might be of interest to you. Since the question that you ask Google is not specific, the answers that it gives you are sometimes not comprehensive the way a Westlaw or Lexis search would be. Secondly, one of the features of Google may create security concerns for many firms. That feature is the fact that Google will bypass passwords and search within encrypted files that may contain privileged information. That opens the door to anyone who has access to your computer and who wants to look in the encrypted files. There has been enough discussion of this fault of in the computer press that my guess is that Google will find a solution before the product is put into finalized form. Two of the other old line search engines overcome both of these problems and one specialized tool is almost a mandatory addition to your computer software.
The search engine that I use the most is a free program that I have mentioned before. Lookout is ideal for indexing all of your Outlook information. While you can include files other than Outlook, the program is not designed to handle massive amounts of information. It is best used as a daily tool for searching your e-mail. It indexes your e-mail in the background so it is always up to date and it works unbelievably better than Outlook’s search tool. What would take Outlook’s tool several minutes to find can be found in several seconds using Lookout. If you are a heavy email user and Outlook is your e-mail program, you must have Lookout. Oh, did I mention that it is free? Go to www.lookoutsoft.com/Lookout/download.html and download it from Microsoft.
ISYS has long been my favorite search engine and I’ve written about it often in this column. Like Google, it uses an index that takes many hours to build but unlike Google the searches can be focused and particularized to in the same way you would focus a search in Westlaw. And if you are put off by the complicated system of creating searches in Westlaw, fear not. ISYS uses a simple menu system that allows you to construct complex, focused searches by clicking on a menu. ISYS is very thorough and will discover information in your standard documents that you had long since forgotten about. It is an indispensable tool, I think, and no one who has followed my recommendation has ever registered a complaint. The only problem is that it is expensive. Go to http://www.isys-search.com/products/pricing.html and check it out.
dtSearch (www.dtsearch.com) has been around for a long time and has many corporate and legal users. While it is powerful and searches more file types that ISYS it has suffered from an inability to index more than six to eight GB of information in one index. It does allow you to create multiple indexes and search all of them at one time but that requires some effort in planning that many would rather avoid. dtSearch’s query creation tool is less elegant than ISYS but it works quickly and well with complex searches. In addition, it allows you to use “fuzzy” searching as well as word searches. The forthcoming version 7 will index a terabyte of data thus overcoming the main problem that I have with the product. The indexing is really slow the first time around but if you let it run overnight that is not a problem. Version 7 promises to be a lot faster at indexing so dtSearch is certainly worthy of your consideration. On balance it is probably cheaper by a bit that ISYS.
The Bottom Line
There are many search engines available today and there will certainly be more in the future. Microsoft promises to have an greatly improved tool available soon and that is why they bought Lookout from a couple of young entrepreneurs. If you don’t want to wait for Microsoft, for the moment the above tools are the best of breed. Once you have used a powerful search engine you will wonder how you ever lived without it. I promise!!