Anyone who has ever prepared a tax return knows the feeling: somewhere in that vast pile of bank statements, canceled checks, credit-card receipts, W-2s, checklists, worksheets, and sundry other paperwork lies the one piece of data you need right now to complete line 37b. But where in the name of the 16th Amendment is it?
If it’s any consolation, professionals suffer the same fate. So when Liberty Tax Service began developing new in-house tax software for its nationwide team of tax preparers, it made integrated desktop-search capabilities a top priority.
Giving Liberty’s tax specialists a way to scan their computers for relevant tax data will boost productivity and cut costs, says Rufe Vanderpool, vice president of software development for the Virginia Beach, Va.-based firm. That’s because the tax-preparation software the company supplies to its franchisees is crammed full of Internal Revenue Service notices and other relevant documents. Preparers need fast access to all of it. And since, as Vanderpool says, “everyone knows how to search,” providing the ability to find what you need when you need it was seen as essential.
While desktop-search applications have been kicking around for at least a decade, Google Inc. brought the technology into the spotlight with the release of its slick Google Desktop tool in October 2004. The product, which in essence allows you to “Google” the documents and other data sources on your hard drive in much the same way that you would Google a given search term on the Internet, was an immediate hit. Soon employees, with no encouragement (or approval) from corporate IT, began to load the software onto their machines. Now the office desktop has emerged as a key battleground for all of the major Internet search players, including Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo, as well as smaller search developers such as X1 Technologies (which licenses its technology to Yahoo), Ask Jeeves, and Exalead.
Helping the Help Desk
Businesses like desktop-search tools because they help information-hungry workers quickly find data stored deep inside their hard drives and, depending on the specific configuration, on corporate intranets and the Internet as well. Easy to use, these programs stand in stark contrast to complex and unwieldy business-intelligence and content-management applications, which can take months to learn and can overwhelm users not versed in the ways of Boolean operators and other advanced search techniques.
Another key benefit is that desktop search can relieve the strain on in-house support staff. At Liberty, for example, support personnel must field an endless stream of questions from tax preparers at 2,000 offices scattered around the nation. That gets frustrating, and expensive, when the question amounts to “Where are the instructions for Form 3520-A?”
Which search tool is best will vary based on needs. Vanderpool says Liberty turned to X1 Technologies because it felt the company could help it build highly flexible desktop-search features directly into new and existing applications. “X1 has a phenomenal amount of file types they’ll search, so that was huge to us,” he says. “Most of the documentation we have is in PDF files, so that was a big issue.” The IRS also uses PDF for many of its documents, which made the need for PDF searching imperative. So was the ability to integrate cross-references between sources like IRS documents and Liberty’s internal documentation. “We’ve found all sorts of intuitive places within our software where we can build in desktop-search functions for users,” says Vanderpool. “As we develop new documentation, or add additional IRS documentation, all I have to do is put it into the directory and the search software will automatically index it and make it available.” Liberty is now using the new search technology at its headquarters and planned to distribute it to franchisees at the end of last month.