Quick Tips for Improving Search in SharePoint 2010

Many organizations implement SharePoint for a number of different reasons including collaboration, content management, business intelligence, process improvement, and many others. These are areas where organizations are leveraging the vast capabilities of SharePoint 2010 to allow their users to work smarter and not harder.

But one area that many organizations seem to forget about is the powerful enterprise search capabilities that are available out of the box with SharePoint 2010. Search tends to be one of those areas with SharePoint that “just works,” so what usually happens in an organization is that the farm gets setup and search gets configured — results come back and it is assumed that everything must be working. Right? This approach is very common which is why when I go to work with different companies I often hear the same story about how “Search is broken” or “search sucks.” But the fact of the matter is that in order to work to its full potential, search can’t be entirely an afterthought. However, getting better results from search doesn’t require a lot of effort.

Before we can get into any search discussion we’ve got to start with the key measuring stick for determining whether any search engine works — relevancy. Relevancy is just another way of saying “did you find what you were looking for?” Users who have negative things to say usually aren’t finding what they are looking for and therefore have an issue with relevancy. The following are a few quick and easy ways to improve relevancy across your organization with very little effort.

Put more important documents near the root of the site, less important documents farther down the hierarchy — They say the cream always rises to the top, and with search the same is true. There are many factors that work together to determine the relevancy of a document but one rule of thumb is that the deeper the document is buried in your hierarchy the less relevant SharePoint is going to assume the document is in comparison to a similar document closer to the root. As a rule of thumb, the less “/” in a URL to a piece of content the more relevant it is. For example a document at http://sales/sharepoint-presentation.docx would be considered more relevant that http://sales/products/sharepoint-presentation.docx.

Just remember that you can use this to your advantage. Less important documents and sites can be nested deeper in your hierarchy and more important ones can be closer to the top.

Use natural language for site and file names — Among the easiest and most effective things people can do to improve search relevancy is to name their sites and files effectively. Look at these two URLs:

  • http://sales/north-america/presentations/april-2011-widgets.docx
  • http://slsna/p_wdgts411.docx
  • The first document has a URL which has actual words used for the sites and document where the second one has some shorthand for the sites and document names. The first one is far more effective because the URL and file names for a document in SharePoint are a heavily weighted component of the relevancy algorithm. If you were to type a search query of “sales presentations widgets” SharePoint would be able to determine clearly that the first document was relevant to the query. Although the second document might have some of those words typed somewhere in the content, and would likely still show up somewhere in the results — the first one will be considered more relevant simply because of the way it is named.

    It should also be noted that in order for this to work as effectively as possible it is important to NOT run your words together. This is because SharePoint doesn’t know where words break unless you’ve got something between them that it identifies as a “wordbreaker.” Although spaces are recognized as a word breaker in SharePoint, my recommendation is to use “-“ between words instead. The main reason for this is because if you use spaces in things like site or page names when SharePoint will automatically remove them and you’ll lose out on the relevancy benefit you’d get otherwise. Other common word breakers that get used are things like underscores (_), periods, semi-colons. If you happen to be using these, they are also all valid word breakers.

    Supply metadata for your files — If you aren’t familiar with the term metadata it basically means “data about data.” If you were talking about a car some common pieces of metadata would be make, model, color, mileage — think about the types of things you’d use to find a car on a web site. All of those pieces of data describe the car; they are its metadata.

    For your files in SharePoint, by tagging them with descriptive metadata you can make it easier for your users to find what they are looking for. Remember, that metadata is always going to carry a heavier relevancy weight than content in the body of a document.

    How much metadata do you need? Generally I recommend 5 to 10 fields that would be useful for categorizing a file. Common examples would be: department, product name, type of document, client, etc. The key to metadata is that it needs to be clear and consistent. Here are a few metadata recommendations:

  • Use managed metadata fields, choice, or lookup fields so your users don’t have to manually type in metadata to ensure consistency.
  • Make as much of it required as possible – if you don’t your users likely won’t fill it out!
  • Resist the temptation to add too many fields. The idea is to make it easier for your users to find things, not make them have to take an hour to upload documents.
  • Summary

    This article covered just a few basic tips, but even though they may seem small, they can have a huge impact on search relevancy for your users. And the best part is that it doesn’t take any custom code or even a lot of effort. The end result should be that users will spend less time looking for things in SharePoint which can add up to tons of ROI. Managers like things that bring ROI and it usually puts them in a better mood when it is time to do performance reviews!


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