Alright, I guess it’s time to take on the bear of the SharePoint world: how to get better results from everyday searches. Search is a big topic and better search results aren’t magic: you have to work for them.
Because search is such a big topic, this isn’t one post; it’s a series. And with this series, I hope to help a lot of you improve your searches by using a mixture of quick fixes and long-term behavioral changes.
This series is generally not about admins and system operators who run SharePoint systems. This is for the everyday worker who needs to use SharePoint search, might currently be frustrated with what they’re getting, and wants to see better results when they decide to jump into the search box.
So, take a deep breath and promise you won’t get offended? No, seriously. I’m going to tell you you’re probably doing it all wrong. And I don’t want to make you mad. Well, at least I don’t think I could make you any madder than you are at the SharePoint search results page. Ha!
Okay, moving right along…
First, get Google out of your head
Search is one of the most controversial features of SharePoint. I’m not normally one to defend Microsoft—they have their own public relations and marketing people to do that—but in defense of them and the SharePoint platform, you likely expect too much from every search box you ever come across. The culprit? Google.
Google has created such a good product—and we have become so dependent on it and know it so well—that the Google experience isn’t even the gold standard for most people; it’s the minimum expectation of a search engine.
“Why can’t my experience be more like Google?” is a scarily common request I get. In fact, I’ve had dozens of people propose that I purchase the Google enterprise search server, just based on brand recognition, knowing nothing about how it works.
These requests shouldn’t be your go-to response to a bad search experience. Google has spent billions of dollars building a search engine whose sole purpose from a business standpoint is to bombard you with advertising. It just happens to be that many times that advertising—mixed with other organic results—happens to be what you’re looking for.
Expecting Google-like results from SharePoint would be like going to the county fair expecting a theme park experience that only Disney can create. Okay, that might be a bit unfair to SharePoint, but I think you get the idea.
And don’t get me wrong, I love Google. But Google search is meant to make money. SharePoint search isn’t. There is no “SharePoint ad words” and very few people using a SharePoint system are doing much (if anything) to promote good results and remove bad ones. Your bad results—I kind of hate to say it—are thanks to you (your skills at searching), your colleagues (for creating content that’s hard to find), and your organization’s leadership (for not making search a priority in hiring experts that can improve it).
Second, good search results depend on people making an effort
There are two key reasons for bad search results: 1) lack of content that has been optimized for searching and 2) users not using the search box and results page to the best of their ability.
Frankly, this means that your bad search results are either the fault of 1) your colleagues (and you) or company for not following proven practices to increase searchability of your files or 2) you, for not knowing how to search well. Usually it’s a healthy mixture of both.
Let me put that in a tabular format for you
The reason you expect such good search results is because the major search engines out there—Google, Bing, et al (wait, are there others?)—don’t just go out and find content, index it, and wait for you to search for it. They also promote good content based on 1) its popularity, 2) whether advertising was purchased, and 3) whether it’s actually good information.
Popularity depends on how often content is called out online, advertising depends on dollars received, and reviewing the quality of the content depends on groups of people who work for Google, Bing, et al to actually review it and promote it if it’s good. Remember, search engines are a business.
On the other side of the coin, content producers are on track to spend $65 billion in 2016 on search engine optimization (SEO). Marketing teams everywhere are becoming experts in what is actually a very nebulous expertise: getting your content to the top of a search results page. Why so much money? Because hits from a search engine translate to leads and increased sales and business. It’s simple economics.
What you should take away from how Google and other major search engines work is:
- Search provider: Google and Bing are constantly working to improve their algorithms, take in sales revenue for promoting content for advertising, and curate content based on ad hoc needs (like if you Google “NYC forecast” and get a graphical representation of the upcoming weather for the Big Apple).
- Content provider: Content builders are maximizing their exposure by following as many best practices around search engine optimization (SEO) as possible because the market economy smiles upon those who make the best of the search engines out there.
- Searcher: You as a searcher don’t really have to do much to find a reasonably priced router that can be shipped quickly. Google (the search provider) and Amazon (the content provider) have done the work for you. So you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security on how search engines work.
Now take these concepts and translate them to your organization and SharePoint search:
- Search provider: Can you do much to improve the search engine and how it works? Actually, to some extent, your IT department can, but they have to be asked to and likely don’t know where improvements could be made that would have the most positive impact on the business. That, and they’re probably pretty busy with other large-scale upgrades and rollouts. It’s on the business to request these improvements.
- Content provider: Are you and your colleagues following SEO best practices for all of your files, regardless of whether they’re in draft or finished format? Do you even know what you can do to improve SEO of files in a SharePoint system? Do you have a dedicated employee or team in charge of finding the important stuff and maximizing its SEO? Probably not.
- Searcher: Are you using the search features to their max when you search for something? Or do you just type words in a box and expect an amazing results list? If you’re not learning the best practices of how to search, you shouldn’t expect great results. Read our ultimate guide to better searching and you’ll see a notable improvement.
The take-away here is that there are three parts of the equation: the search provider can maximize its efforts, content builders can improve their content’s SEO, and searchers can up their skills with some training.
No, improving search isn’t easy
I’m definitely not trying to scare you, but I’m also not going to lie to you. If you’re looking to improve search results within your organization as a whole, it’s going to be a lot of work.
You, your management, or maybe a knowledge or information management team (if you have one) will have to come together with IT to maximize the search engine itself, then you have to work with the content builders (likely all employees) to maximize SEO, and improve search skills for all users.
You’ll note that most of this comes down to behavior change. And, naturally, behavior change is the most difficult of all change.
But improving search doesn’t have to be too difficult
If you’re trying to improve search results for your own department (a smaller, likely more nimble entity than the whole organization), there are a lot of reasonably easy things you can do.
- Set up a category system in your document libraries
- Ask people to tag their files with keywords
- Have everyone use the Title field (with very descriptive titles) when they create documents
- Show colleagues how to use the search box in a smart way (limiting their search to only your department’s site, for example).
I’ll cover all this in later posts.
That leaves you. You can learn how to be a smart searcher by employing a bunch of techniques that will get you better results no matter how bad the content is you’re searching.
In fact, most of these skills work across all major search engines, so learning these best practices will be the ultimate life hack for you. Everyone should be a good searcher in the 21st century. Unfortunately it’s not like there’s a class that we all go to that helps us get there. That’s why you’re here.
Improving SharePoint search is very doable. It just depends on how much effort can be input and what the value is to you, your management, your IT team, and your C-suite to improve search results.