People often complain about their intranet search. It's important to people, but it's hard to implement effectively. Here are some reasons why your intranet search may not be working as well as it could:

  1. Volume. As the amount of information in your intranet increases, so does the challenge of surfacing the right thing.
  2. Outdated content. Not staying on top of outdated content clutters up search results.
  3. The Google experience and algorithm doesn't work well on an intranet. Google is great at finding sites that have lots of links pointing to them. This doesn't work well on intranets because people often need something that's relevant to only a small amount of people.
  4. Many search engines are still not very smart or sophisticated. They are pretty literal and heavily reliant on the few keywords we give them. They don't interpret what we really want. If I say "hiring temporary workers" to a search engine, unless it's a smart search engine, it's not going to take into consideration whether I'm in HR or a manager or an employee, or if I want a policy or procedure, or if what I'm looking for uses the terms "employees" or "contractors" instead of workers.
  5. Search engines are not just plug and play and require an investment in time and technology. For search to work well, you need to understand the information needs of staff and the technical abilities of the search engine. And while FAST search technology adds many enhancements to search, it also requires people to manage and set it up effectively.
  6. Some employees have limited search abilities. Search skills vary and some people aren't experienced with using various search strategies to find information (such as removing and adding keywords, trying plural and singular keywords, using search scopes) and are less successful finding what they need from search than they could be.
  7. The information landscape is complex and it's not always clear what is being searched. Most organizations today have an information landscape that is complex and varied enough that people often are not aware of how or when various information sources are being searched (e.g. fileshares, the CMS, collaboration/team sites, other servers and applications) and miss opportunities to filter out or focus on the information they need.
  8. It's difficult to implement effective metadata and taxonomy strategies. A good search almost always involves good metadata and taxonomy. Think of the options to filter your search on airline and travel sites,, or other sites where it's easy to find a product. These all involve good metadata and taxonomy, which are a lot of work to create and get people to use.

The good news is that your search can be improved. Here's a list of things you can do to make your search better. Some things are unique to SharePoint 2010 search, but most will be relevant for other search engines as well.

  1. Delete or archive outdated content. It's not uncommon for 20% or more of intranet content to be outdated, cluttering and competing with current information in search results. Removing what you don't need from your intranet can improve your search.

  2. Make use of Best Bets. Best Bets is a manual way of telling your search engine what should appear as a best bet at the top of search results (e.g. the vacation policy and procedures for searches like "vacation", or the engineering department page for the search "engineers" or "engineering"). Creating a lot of best bets can be a tedious process, but doing so can also noticeably improve search.  

    Best Bets are easiest to use effectively in organizations where there is a high concentration in the most frequent searches. For an example, see "A best bets success story".

  3. Identify useful ways to slice and dice information. There are almost always parts of a site or types of content that employees should be able to focus their search on, such as policies and procedures, department sites, news, product information, regional information, etc. Use your content types and sub-sections of your site to create scopes and filters to help people filter out irrelevant information and consider the creation or use of other metadata and taxonomy (categorization) to help employees navigate search results.
  4. Identify authoritative and demoted sites. SharePoint 2010 lets you identify important sites that should be ranked higher or lower in the search algorithm. Areas of your site you know are widely searched should be identified as authoritative, and parts of your site that store less current information or archived information can be demoted to get out of the way of more useful information.
  5. Identify synonyms. Identify terms or acronyms that are used interchangeably and include them in the search thesaurus to help people who don't know the right keyword to use. You do have to test these though — if over-used they can bring back too many results.
  6. Test your search with and without stemming. If it's on, you should get singular and plural versions of your search, as well as other keyword variants such as getting results for "engineering" if you search "engineer". By default it is turned off for the English language in SharePoint 2010. Having it on may or may not retrieve too many irrelevant results, and having it off may or may not miss relevant things. It's good to test it with both.
  7. Promote the habit of descriptive and accurate titles. Good titles are important for the search algorithm, as well as for helping people identify which item in the search results they need. Make sure authors understand how page titles affect search.
  8. Build in a way to get feedback.Provide an easy way for employees to rate or provide feedback on search results. This can help you identify best bets, authoritative or demoted sites, synonyms for your thesaurus, and content that should be deleted or higher profile in the information architecture. It can also help provide you with metrics on improvements of search over time.
  9. Provide support for people to improve their searching skills. I often see people who would benefit from a 30 minute search tutorial on basic search strategies and tips and tricks (how keywords work, using or not using quotation marks) and generally finding information and learning about the information landscape at their organization. Consider offering optional sessions quarterly or on demand within departments so all employees are benefiting from the search capabilities you do have.
  10. When your search is new, manually add query suggestions. In SharePoint 2010, search queries that have returned results pages that have been clicked at least six times will appear as suggestions when someone is typing in their keywords. It's a handy way to suggest keywords that return results that have been useful to others. However, if your search hasn't been used much these suggestions won't appear. To support user adoption in the early days of your new intranet search, check your search logs from your old search and manually create query suggestions.
  11. Make search smarter through user adoption. People's use of search and the intranet can help make search smarter through the generation of query suggestions based on what people are looking for and clicking on, and the algorithm promoting pages that are frequently accessed, tagged, or rated highly.

Search is important. Employees complain when it doesn't work and notice when it gets better. Doing what you can to improve your search is a great way to make employees like your intranet more.