Keys to Planning For SharePoint Search

Of the core planning areas in SharePoint, Search seems to get very little attention.  I find this surprising since one of the most common complaints from SharePoint implementations (or any Enterprise Information System) is that users cannot find “anything” in the system.  Most of the environments I go into have Search configured in only a very basic sense; a search site was created and crawling is scheduled.  To really get value out of the search features, and to greatly enhance the end user experience, additional planning and configuration is required.  Like many of the high level planning topics, the goals and plan should be reviewed at least once a year to ensure that the current goals and expectations are aligned.

Evaluate the Content

Not all content is equal.  The format of the content (File Type, Lists, Web Sites), the freshness of the content, and the purpose of the content can vary dramatically and may need to be handled differently.  Evaluate the types of content in the system currently along with any new types of content expected to be added in the short term.

Three examples of the different types of content could include:  Enterprise Content Management, Help Desk, and Project content.

Enterprise Content Management – Large ECM data stores primarily include structured data used throughout the organization.  Examples could include things like Sales Orders, Purchase Orders, or anything that is used by multiple departments throughout the organization.  Search tends to be very important to large data stores like this since the content is not easy to browse.

Help Desk Content – In most medium to large organizations there is content used to support the Help Desk functions spread through multiple sites, and perhaps multiple systems.  Some content might be document based, some might be in SharePoint lists for things like FAQs, or other formats.  While a regular keyword search may bring back relevant content, this is a great example of a case where a custom Search Scope could be created to narrow down the content locations or types that are queried against.

Project Data – For organizations that manage a large number of projects through SharePoint, it is possible to identify a unique type of content that is stored throughout all of the sites, and create Search Scopes that can return that specific type of project content.

Determine Search Goals

The next step is to interview the stakeholders including a number of the end users to determine what their expectations are as well as how they think they would approach search with the system.

Identify the Content They Search For – Try to determine the content they most frequently work with as well as the types of content they most frequently have to search for.  Typically users know where their frequently accessed content is located.  Unless there are thousands are items they may not need search for that content.  For other content, in other areas they are likely less familiar with the structure and rely on search.

Identify Search Types – Try to identify the types of searches they do (standard, or advanced with keywords), and how likely they would be to match a search against a specific search scope.

Identify Level of Patience – While it would be great if you only ever received a single search item in the result set, and it was the perfect match, that is not realistic.  Try to have the users express what their expectations are and what their true level of patience is.  While they ever look at the second page of results?  Will they quickly just do a different search?  Will they use any of the search refinements?

Identify Location of the Search – In addition, try to have them identify WHERE they initiate a search from.  To they navigate to the general area of the sites, do they try and search directly from the front page, do they navigate to different search centers depending on what they are looking for?  Depending on the results, the end users may be even be able to take advantage of the advanced configuration without training.

Develop a Search Design Plan

The next step is to develop your Search Design Plan.  It is important to review all of the different types of content along with the stakeholder’s goals and expectations to ensure that they are addressed.

Define Content Sources – Start the design by identifying all of the content sources you want to include in the index.

Identify Search Scopes – Next, try and identify Search Scopes that represent the logical boundaries for your content.  This more than anything can lead to highest level of relevancy because you are limiting the areas of the index that are being searched against.

Keywords and Best Bets – For the common search terms or critical company specific terms, it is important to try and identify the Keywords, Best Bets and Synonyms to help surface the content.

Custom Search or Result Pages – Try to identify any areas where a custom search or results page would be beneficial.  Both the search and results pages can be fully customized.  There are a number situations where simple modifications can provide a big payback.

Enterprise Search

With proper planning these features can be extended to provide a powerful Enterprise Search experience.  To make that transition the planning needs to extend beyond just your SharePoint content, but to content also stored in other systems, file shares, web sites, and email systems.  As the scope of search increases, so does the number of items in the index and therefore the amount of planning and configuration that needs to happen to deliver relevant results.

This is also where typically the topic of Federated Search comes up, since it is often valuable to provide results from other search systems, but in a separate result set instead of adding it to the local index and return it as part of the main results.

Review Search Metrics and Reports

Both MOSS and Server 2010 come equipped with Search metrics and reports that make it possible to analyze the current usage and effectiveness of search.  If you have not reviewed these before, there are bound to be some surprises both with the number of searches executed as well as what people are searching for.  The information can help you understand what people frequently search for as well as which results they are clicking through versus executing another search.  This information can be used to tune the search results for those keywords, and Best Bets can be configured for key content.  I have always relied on this information when reviewing end user needs for an existing environment.

Summary

The keys to planning for SharePoint Search include Evaluating the Content, Determining the organization’s Search Goals, Developing a Plan, and Reviewing Search Reports.  Following through on these steps will greatly increase the likelihood that the system will deliver reliable and relevant content back to the end users.  Enhancing the search experience will have tremendous payback for any organization with mission critical content in the system and can be the critical point that makes the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful enterprise information system.

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