Last week I wrote about “personalized search” and then a chance encounter at a meeting triggered a new awareness of business behavior that makes my own personalized search a lot different than might work for others. A fellow introduced himself to me as the founder of a start-up with a product for searching email. He explained that countless nuggets of valuable information reside in email and will never be found without a product like the one his company had developed. I asked if it only retrieved emails that were resident in an email application like Outlook; he looked confused and said “yes.” I commented that I leave very little content in my email application but instead save anything with information of value in the appropriate file folders with other documents of different formats on the same topic. If an attachment is substantive, I may create a record with more metadata in my content management database so that I can use the application search engine to find information germane to projects I work on. He walked away with no comment, so I have no idea what he was thinking.

It did start me thinking about the realities of how individuals dispose of, store, categorize and manage their work related documents. My own process goes like this. My work content falls into four broad categories: products and vendors, client organizations and business contacts, topics of interest, and local infrastructure related materials. When material is not purposed for a particular project or client but may be useful for a future activity, it gets a metadata record in the database and is hyperlinked to the full-text. The same goes for useful content out on the Web.

When it comes to email, I discipline myself to dispose of all email into its appropriate folder as soon as I can. Sometimes this involves two emails, the original and my response. When the format is important I save it in the *.mht format (it used to be *.htm until I switched to Office 2007 and realized that doing so created a folder for every file saved); otherwise, I save content in *.txt format. I rename every email to include a meaningful description including topic, sender and date so that I can identify the appropriate email when viewing a folder. If there is an attachment it also gets an appropriate title and date, is stored in its native format and the associated email has “cover” in the file name; this helps associate the email and attachment. The only email that is saved in Outlook in personal folders is current activity where lots of back and forth is likely to occur until a project is concluded. Then it gets disposed of by deleting, or with the project file folders as described above. This is personal governance that takes work. Sometimes I hit a wall and fall behind on the filtering and disposing but I keep at it because it pays off in the long term.

So, why not relax and leave it all in Outlook, then let a search engine do the retrieval? Experience had revealed that most emails are labeled so poorly by senders and the content is so cryptic that to expect a search engine to retrieve it in a particular context or with the correct relevance would be impossible. I know this from the experience of having to preview dozens of emails stored in folders for projects that are active. I have decided to give myself the peace of mind that when the crunch is on, and I really need to go to that vendor file and retrieve what they sent me in March of last year, I can get it quickly in a way that no search engine could ever do. Do you realize how much correspondence you receive from business contacts using their “gmail” account with no contact information revealing their organization in the body and signed with a nickname like “Bob” and messages “like we’re releasing the new version in four weeks” or that just have a link to an important article on the web with “thought this would interest you?”

I did not have a chance to learn if my new business acquaintance had any sense of the amount of competition he has out there for email search, or what his differentiator is that makes a compelling case for a search product that only searches through email, or what happens to his product when Microsoft finally gets FAST search bundled to work with all Office products. OR, perhaps the rest of the world is storing all content in Outlook. Is this true? If so, he may have a winner.