Six Steps to a Great SharePoint Search Experience

If your users are complaining about SharePoint search and constantly saying they can’t find anything you should consider upgrading to SharePoint 2013. The face of search has been totally redone in SharePoint 2013, and under this new user interface there is a much more powerful architecture.

The issue isn’t whether SharePoint 2013 search is better than previous versions, it is. There are those that will tell you that just upgrading to SharePoint 2013 search out-of-the-box will make your search better. In many cases this may be true, but if you want to create a great search experience you’ll need to go a bit farther than this. Here are a few suggestions to really addressing your user’s concerns:

1. Learn What Users Already Know

If you want to know what your users are complaining about you might try researching the queries that return no results or produce useless results (no clicks). Did you know SharePoint has had the ability to tell you this since 2007?

One of the most underutilized features is SharePoint search analytics. It can tell you what terms are used to search for content, what queries return no results and what queries produce results with no clicks. Knowing this helps you understand the problem you are trying to solve.

Once you arm yourself with this information I would also suggest you invite some of the more vocal naysayers into your planning. Once you get past the noise of their frustration you are likely to find that some of what is being described as a search problem is really a broader SharePoint structural issue (see next section).

2. Organize

The old saying in real estate is location, location, location. We know what we need is in there somewhere but finding it is a nightmare. Don’t just assume another search engine is the solution.

Most of SharePoint started with small workgroups spinning up sites and sharing files. This led to what many refer to as SharePoint Sprawl. If this sounds like your SharePoint environment you’ll need to create better meta-data, classify what exists, and plan a better taxonomy.

Fortunately, there are many tools to the rescue. One of the ones I like the best is Concept Searching’s Smart Content Framework. It is designed to automatically create better meta-data, classify your content and offer suggestions on taxonomy. I suggest you spend as much time thinking about this as trying to get to the next search engine.

3. Teach Search Basics

I still find it amazing that most users don’t know how to use AND to narrow a search or OR to expand it. Concepts we take for granted like using quotes to search for a phrase or using wildcards are not understood by many users.

I recently read a great blog “10 Essential SharePoint Search Hints” by Susan Hanley a SharePoint Consultant. I would strongly recommend checking it out and planning training in this area.

One area I want to emphasize further is doing Property searches. Even users that know the basics often don’t know how to use Properties to search for content in SharePoint. Assuming you’ve taken my second piece of advice above and have begun to plan better meta-data and taxonomy teaching your users to leverage it will go a long ways.

The bottom line is a little training will save you a great deal of heartache later.

4. Search Suggestions & Query Spelling

You can store search queries so users can be more efficient when they frequently use similar queries. You can also pre-populate suggested phrases to get your users started. This is a great way to suggest good search queries to your users.

Don’t assume your users know how to spell turn on spelling suggestions (a.k.a. “Did you mean?”). This will check each query term the user enters to ensure it is spelled correctly. SharePoint comes with a standard dictionary and expands the dictionary for terms that are used frequently. With a little work you can manually expand the dictionary or lower the limit for what is considered frequent.

5. Get familiar with Query Rules and Result Templates

Search Keywords and Best Bets were the easiest way to improve relevance in SharePoint 2010 search results. In SharePoint 2013 Query Rules provide a more powerful method to deduce what the user seeks and present a relevant block of results.

SharePoint 2013’s Result Templates let you control how a search result is displayed. This gives you complete control over the styling of a search result type. For example we create a Search Result Display Template called “Vizit Item” that can be used for putting previews of PDF or TIF documents in the SharePoint 2013 search hover panel.

6. Search Refinement

A simple way to let a user narrow the scope of their search is through Result Sources. SharePoint 2013 comes with a whole host of options in this area, and they can really help a user get a more meaningful search result. For example if you are searching for a person or document, simply using a result source can ensure that only people or documents are shown in the result. Here’s a link to a technet article on the topic.

If you’ve taken my advice and planned meta-data and a taxonomy you can use the crawled meta-data in the refinement panel web part. You can also user the Result Sources in this panel. This is a powerful tool that can be customized to really help users easily narrow search results to what they seek.