IMPROVE IT: Enterprise Search


Planting and cultivating to reap long-term benefits

Agnes Molnar

by Agnes Molnar on 12/14/2015

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Deploying enterprise search is not a single IT process; it’s much more complex than that. Actually, enterprise search should be considered an enterprise business process. The stakeholders have to understand how it works, but at the same time, they must identify the expectations and requirements, too. This includes addressing where the results come from, what kind of results can be expected, and what the user experience should be.

Like a garden, SharePoint search is an intricate system composed of many functional components that interact organically. After planting the seed of implementation, a company grows, user’s needs change, and the search system requires ongoing care and maintenance.

Even the simplest search solution is a complex element of the company’s information architecture.

Common Challenges

The first and perhaps the biggest challenge is a misunderstanding. People often consider search to be easy. Their impression is that search just has to be “turned on” and it works. Technically speaking, this might be true; but the problem is always with the results it provides: Are these results relevant to the user? In today’s insane information overload, the biggest challenge is with findability and discoverability of the information. Getting millions of results doesn’t make sense in the enterprise, but we do want to get all the relevant documents.

The next challenge is how to define search requirements. “I just want it to work” is not a requirement. Neither is “I want a nice, fancy search” nor “We want to be able to find everything.”

When defining the formal requirements, we have to focus on three aspects of search:

  • Content: It’s obvious that we need content to be included in search. This includes types of documents and objects, and their structure, attributes, and meta-information.
  • Users: Every user has different information needs and a unique personality. We have to identify the audience types, users’ expertise, and typical tasks.
  • Context: Last but not least, in order to define the global requirements of search, we must understand where and how the information is used.

When specifying these requirements, we have to plan not only for the implementation of search, but also for its maintenance and metrics. To be able to make and keep search successful, we have to identify our success criteria as well.

What Makes a Good Enterprise Search?

This is an important question.

Because every user has different information needs, and our needs might be different from query to query, defining what a good search means might also vary from person to person. The key point is to find the common needs.

One of the most popular metrics is search usage. It rests on a very simple observation: even if people start using search, they stop using it if they don’t get the desired results. Checking the usage analytics right after the release is a necessary step, but is definitely not enough. We need to keep checking these reports, analyze them, and take actions when and where needed.

Besides usability, security is critical, too. Although SharePoint search always provides the results security trimmed, it’s important to understand what this actually means:

  • Security trimming means users cannot see objects as search results that they don’t have authorized access to.
  • With systems than can be connected by out-of-the-box connectors (like SharePoint, file shares, websites, Exchange public folders, etc.), security trimming is given; we cannot override or “hack” it. With custom connectors though, we have to take care of the proper mapping of the source system’s permissions into SharePoint access control lists (ACLs).
  • Security trimming is a strong and useful feature. Users can find the content that is indexed and that they have access to. However, problems can result if the content source’s permission settings are not maintained properly.

Here is an example of problems caused by incorrect permission settings: A financial company had millions of documents in a huge file share with a very deep and wide folder structure. In one of the sub-sub-subfolders, they had a file with the name “ManagementSalaries.xls”. As you might think, this file contained all the managers and C-level executives, with their salaries, cafeterias and other company benefits. Since it was very deep in the folder structure, almost nobody knew that it existed.

But, as soon as we added this file share to search and indexed its content, this Excel file started to appear in the results, actually in a very high position when someone was searching for his or her manager’s name.

Of course, this was a huge security problem. The company didn’t want to disclosure the content of this document. But it’s important to clarify that even though it happened in SharePoint search, the problem was on the content side. If the file share’s permissions had been set correctly, employees could not have found this document.

In some cases, there is a need to be aware of every piece of content that does exist, regardless of its access rights. In this circumstance, users can apply for read permissions instantly. Due to the way the SharePoint search engine works, it’s impossible to “hack” the search engine itself to support this kind of behavior. Instead, we always have to provide a custom solution that is either based on a custom crawler or a general content “inventory.”

Due to the complexity of content sources and search itself, it’s always necessary to run thorough and deep security tests before making search generally available to everyone. These tests must be planned and executed in an accurate way.

Maintaining and Preserving Your Search Garden

While planning and implementing search, keep in mind that it should be governed and maintained, even long after implementation is complete. We usually say that search itself never can be “done.” Consider it like gardening. You set up your garden, plant the trees and flowers, water them and enjoy a beautiful first blossoming. But the work hasn’t ended at all. If you don’t water it regularly, if you don’t prune the trees, fertilize and weed the garden, or mow the lawn, your lovely garden can rapidly turn into a barren field or a chaotic jungle.

Enterprise search is very similar to this. You don’t allocate the proper resources, don’t take care of it, neglect maintenance and updates…and it gets messy very soon. The results lose their relevancy, users don’t get the experience they want; and then they stop using it. Don’t forget: as the environment changes around us, so does your business. User needs evolve, and search has to follow them in order to be and stay successful.

Of course, to be able to keep this up, we need a team. Depending on the size of your company and your needs, the size of this team can vary. The first important point is to realize the need: you have to allocate resources for these tasks. Then you can determine if it’s going to be one person or ten.

Table 1 contains some of the typical internal and external search roles—not only during the implementation phase, but also later, during maintenance and support.

Table 1: Typical internal and external search roles

Search Roles



  • Business Sponsors
  • Stakeholders
  • Project Management
  • IT / Support
  • Search Admins
  • Internal Developers
  • Consultants
  • Service Providers
  • Product Vendors
  • External Developers

Sometimes it’s also necessary to have someone in a liaison role. This person acts internally to represent the interests of the customer, and must understand the needs and business motivations. At the same time, he or she has to have a deep understanding of enterprise search and be able to serve as liaison between the customer and external team members (in most cases, consultants and external developers).

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s see how to measure the success of any enterprise search implementation. The appropriate metrics have to be identified and defined in advance. Designate the team members who have responsibility to analyze each of these metrics regularly, create reports and decide on follow-up action plans.

Figure 1 shows some of the most commonly used metrics. But of course, this list is not (and cannot be) complete. Every business has to define its own success factors and metrics during the planning phase.

Enterprise search metrics commonly used, enterprise search reports
Figure 1. Common Enterprise Search Metrics

When we have the plan ready, the team set up and all the relevant metrics defined, it’s time to take action. As I mentioned at the beginning, search is a continuous business process, like gardening, rather than a one-time project. Therefore, the management and action plans must reflect this long-range approach, too.

If there’s an existing search solution in your business, analyze it, collect feedback and listen to “user voice.” Crawl reports can provide valuable information about users’ behavior, too. Also, check the logs for any existing and permanent errors and fix them. There are many tools to extend SharePoint’s out-of-the-box reporting and analytics capabilities—it’s time to use them!

User experience and metadata definitions must be reviewed and improved on an ongoing basis, too.

As Figure 2 illustrates, this “search gardening” process is a continuous cycle of planning, implementation and analysis.

An enterprise search maintenance cycle includes planning, implementation and analysis
Figure 2. Search Maintenance Cycle

As we’ve seen in this chapter, proving the value of search is not enough—we always have to work on improving it. There are many tools and techniques to do so. But first, we have to recognize and remember: search is a business process, not a one-time implementation project.

To keep our enterprise search fruitful and productive, let’s get gardening!

This article by Agnes Molnar is one of many great chapters in the book, Improve It! A Collection of Essays on Using Analytics to Accomplish More With SharePoint. With multiple perspectives from Microsoft insiders (including IT Unity favorites Susan Hanley, Christian Buckley, Naomi Moneypenny), leading SharePoint consulting firms and industry luminaries, find out how using analytics to measure SharePoint for social, collaborative and engagement enables improved ROI. And, if you’re interested getting started with better measurement of your SharePoint, you can learn more about SharePoint Analytics from Webtrends now.

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