SharePoint 2013: 5 Tips for User Experience in Search Results (minimal effort necessary)

So to start off this post I probably have to wipe off the shocked look on many of my colleagues faces when they see me writing about search.  Known as the user experience, information architecture, branding and governance guy…many may wonder how I could know anything about search as well.  To them I say ‘READ THE TITLE ABOVE’!  There is no place that needs more people experience support than the bane of most organization’s existence, the deep dark hole we all call search.

Search SharepointWhether you are a large organization or small, what is the number one complaint you always get from people?  SEARCH!  Where the reason people do not like your SharePoint search can be many, often times there are a few basic issues that occur that can sometimes have simpler solutions that we might think.

Little side note: One of my 2015 goals is to stop using the word user.  Though I have always thought of users as ‘people’, I have to admit I’ve gotten used to calling them ‘users’.  From an IT perspective, we tend to use the word ‘user’ to somewhat isolate our minds from recognizing we serve people versus automatons at the other end of a computer.  So officially with this post I am going to do my best to stop following the trend.

As the title of this blog states, the purpose is to share with you 5 tips you could implement to help improve even some of the worst search implementations.  Will these ‘fix’ search? No, to truly make a meaningful search takes time and understanding that goes beyond the scope of this post.  What these tips will do is give you a good start in providing more relevant results without a lot of effort.

My 5 Search Tips

1. Order by descending date to return fresher results

Where this might seem like a ‘silly’ change, this could be one of the most value pieces of advice I could give.  When people are searching our enterprise repositories like SharePoint, what is one of the more common complaints that get raised?  Does it sound something like ‘When I search for our holiday schedule I get the schedule from 2012’?  Yes we have all heard this at some point and time.  Having outdated information come up in search is something we all face.  Whether we are crawling too much ‘stuff’ or just aren’t keeping our content ‘fresh’, we always have the challenge of people searching and finding information that is stale or not relevant.  Where trying to solve this issue in its entirety is a daunting task, sometimes thinking about the problem in a logical way can give us a good step in the right direction.

So in the above example, we can ask ourselves two very critical questions.  First, is the reason the old version of the holiday schedule came up first because newer versions don’t exist?  If this is the case, then this tip isn’t going to help at all.  The more likely scenario is a newer version exists but doesn’t show up first or at all?  This could be caused by such things as changing titles, locations, document types or something as simple as typing a generic phrase like ‘holiday schedule’ versus more specific ‘2015 holiday schedule’.  The result is often less than ideal information being returned.

So how can we help this scenario?  Well like the title of this tip states, you can take a giant step in the right direction by re-ordering the returned search results to show the latest information.  This can be done by sorting by almost any date-based field.  The most frequently used would be either the last modified date or creation date.  Which one should you use?  I am going to give the typical consultant response of ‘it depends’.  It depends on the kind of content you have and how often you believe it is updated.  In the scenario of the holiday pay, contributors most likely are not updating the 2012 schedule in 2015 so using the last modified date probably makes the most sense.  In another scenario where you have a project description that was created in 2012…it could be updated in 2015, so you may need to use the creation date to get the freshest results.  So you need to have some understanding of your content to really understand the practice to follow.

tip for user experience in Search Results - Sort Descending

What happens if you don’t know your content but still sort by date?  Well overall this will probably still help your results significantly and shouldn’t be a scenario which causes more issues than help.

2. Use Thesaurus to relate similar terms

One of the biggest challenges of search is the ability of our people to search well.  After 17 years of web-related experience, the only constant I can say has held true since the beginning is how bad people perform searches.  Whether its misspelled words, bad grammar, too simple a query or not understanding what they are searching for in the first place…bad searchers kill even the best search systems.

So what can we do about this?  I’ve often been in clients where it has been determined to do training on search.  Where this may seem like a noble idea, in reality if you have to teach your people how to search,you have already FAILED.  Instead we need to approach this by understanding what our people are searching for, how they are failing and how we can help.

Commonly when looking through search statistics I see how often people’s searches are misspelled, use the wrong word or some other kind of misunderstanding.  Using the Thesaurus capability in SharePoint 2013 you can help people learn from their own mistakes.  In a thesaurus you are able to relate similar terms together, so when searched, the system can show you a broader set of related results.  This could be used for everything from acronyms (USDA, US Department of Agriculture), misspellings (biodeisel, biodiesel) and related terms (processes, procedures).  This simple enhancement can go a long ways in providing better people experience.

tip for user experience in Search Results - Thesaurus

VERY IMPORTANT: The 2013 thesaurus file is a left to right relationship…what does that mean?  If you have a line in the file such as ‘USDA, US Department of Agriculture’, it only works one direction.  To match the words in the other direction you need to add a second line in the opposite direction, such as ‘US Department of Agriculture, USDA’.

Where do you start with a thesaurus file?  The fact is you have a lot of information all around you.  Have you ever looked at your SharePoint search logs?  How about ever read a company document?  Have you ever received a complaint about your search?  From all these instances you can learn so much about how your people try to find information and where you can start to improve that experience.

Where this is a simple practical enhancement, there is one issue that always arises when organizations try to implement this…they OVER THINK IT.  The biggest barrier to adding something like a thesaurus to your SharePoint search is the thought process that it needs to be perfect.  Don’t start by trying to add 10,000 terms…start small and grow it as you learn.

3. Remove lists, libraries and sites

I’m going to call this the most practical tip I will give.  When talking with people who have experienced pain in searching through a SharePoint environment, a lot of pain comes from how SharePoint prioritizes content versus storage containers.  Depending on the sophistication of the searcher (which is 9 times out of 10 not sophisticated) the results returned are littered with links to lists, libraries and sites.  The problem is as part of a people-centered implementation I’ve found there is little reason someone searching is looking for a site versus a specific piece of content.

Even in previous versions of the SharePoint search engine, it was possible to remove these organizational assets out of the search results.  In 2013 the process is even easier, giving the ability to create narrowly focused results sets that include relevant content and excludes the noise that is not.

tip for user experience in Search Result - Remove Lists

In implementing this kind of scenario you are going to simply provide overall better results than out of the box.  Focusing on content instead of storage components can provide a much cleaner results set and provide for a better experience.  If finding these organizational components is important, this strategy can still be used by calling out structural components as a separate result block to better differentiate between content and storage elements.

4. Decide what is more important, finding documents or content

This tip is simple so I am not going to spend a lot of time on it.  The reason for this tip is straightforward: some organizations have focused their SharePoint environment in storing documents to access and others have focused on providing a more structural environment to provide content on mechanisms such as pages.

In both of these scenarios the importance of the ‘type’ of content is actually very significant.  Take the case of an intranet.  If a company built out a well-structured intranet in 2013 and created pages to organize content in a meaningful way, often the side results is pages filled with links to relevant documents where people can explore deeper meanings around a particular topic.  In this scenario, if page content is deemed more important and a person searches…what do you suppose will be found?  Typically an out of the box search result will surface links to the individual documents more often than the relevant pages.  Why is this?  Well as I have said earlier, people are inherently bad searchers and on top of that documents inherently have a lot more words than the typical page (at least I hope)…so with a simple search, documents having many instances of a word or phrase will surface to the top, pages that don’t will flow to the bottom.  This is a common occurrence and a lot of times breaks from what the structural, page-based information architecture is trying to accomplish.

In determining priorities around what type of content is more important for people to find you can help in better structuring your search results.  In SharePoint 2013, you can really look at this in a couple of different ways.  First you could exclude certain content types from the results.  Where this might be an easier solution to implement it might also remove information that is still important to find.  A better practice is to leverage the core capabilities of 2013 search through implementation of KQL (Keyword Query Language)-based query to ‘weight’ different types of content as more important than others when search results are return.  When you using this method, you can actually keep your results intact but provide a weighted understanding to surface results to the top.  This method isn’t only limited to types of content, it could be instances of keywords, location on sites, etc.  Using this to better prioritize returned results can provide a lot of flexibility in enhancing what your people see.

5. Use a result set to narrow down the results you want

For my last tip (and probably my shortest to write), I am going to re-iterate a concept I have brought up a few times above.  Probably the most powerful part of the SharePoint 2013 search is the ability to create complex results sets to return data in a more meaningful way, often pruned of unnecessary information.  Where you could do this in previous versions using the concept of search scopes, in 2013 you can create more multi-dimensional results sets that can better reflect a cleaner search results while allowing for expandability of needs down the road.  The importance of this is the ability to finely control not only what results are returned, but also how they are viewed and the priority they are viewed in.

Some of my favorite uses of a result set is to: re-order search results to reflect fresher content, emphasize related words and content, easily remove structural components and prioritize content.

Notice a pattern?  Well you should.  Using result sets and other related search components, can provide a mechanism to create better search results without needing to highly customize or re-invent the wheel on the wagon you drove in on (a definite American slang saying)

In summary, the point of this post was to give you an idea of how search results can be ‘enhanced’ without spending a lot of time.  Search is historically one of the most under-funded areas in an enterprise and smaller companies.  Being able to provide better results without having to staff an entire search department can provide some great wins for any SharePoint implementation…and we all could use a few of those.

Essential Guide To Enterprise Search In SP2013

About the author Virgil Carroll:

Virgil CarrollVirgil grew up as an Alaskan fisherman, so he knows that life, like business, can be smooth sailing one minute and stormy seas the next. His ability to stay calm and clear-headed through the storms of business has been a valuable asset to many companies and individuals throughout the years. After graduating with his Master’s degree, Virgil decided to put his myriad talents to good use and formed High Monkey and is currently its principal human solutions architect.

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