Top ten tips for intranet search

Search is one of the most useful features on an intranet – but it’s also one of the most complained-about.

A poor search function doesn’t just mean users can’t find the content they want; it reduces user confidence in the whole intranet. Pages of irrelevant, badly-titled results frustrate users, leading many to ask “why can’t this just be like Google?”

Google has spent the last twelve years – not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars – tweaking its search algorithm.  No one has these kinds of resources for enterprise search, but there are certainly a few things intranet managers can learn from Google.

Here Intranetizen gives our top ten tips for sorting out search.

1. Make it simpler

Google’s search page has but 15 words on it. People like this. User research consistently shows the simpler the search page, the higher the degree of user satisfaction. Remove complexity and ambiguity and make your search interface as straightforward as possible.

Users should be able to type their search term, hit a button and get some results. Allow users to refine that search afterwards, and leave any additional options to an Advanced Search option.

2. Don’t rely on a default install

Any search engine needs to be tweaked and trained in order to produce the most relevant result. Google succeeds because it does this constantly.  Search engines are not like Macs; they don’t “just work” straight out of the box.

Every intranet will have different content, and every set of users will have different requirements for that search. So whatever your search solution, you’ll need a certain amount of fine tuning, looking particularly at:

  • Indexing
  • Weighting
  • Metadata
  • Spellchecking and stemming

Changes should be implemented iteratively, testing all the time on real content and users to ensure search returns the most relevant results.

3. Consolidate search features and sources

Localised search linked to specific functionality can be useful, but it’s also prone to user error; if a user has to navigate to a particular area of the site to use, say, an expertise finder, it creates a confusing user journey.

All searches should start with a single search box available on every page (usually in the top right). Users often don’t know whether a piece of information can be found on ‘the intranet’, a database, the extranet, the company website, or within some of your social content, so you should aim to include as many data sources as possible in your search index, then enable the user to choose result they want through refinement options.

4. Implement autosuggest

The average Google web search string now contains four words, but research shows users tend to use fewer words in enterprise searches. Less focussed searching means less relevant results.

Encourage users to use longer search strings by implementing autosuggest. This will produce more detailed search queries, and in turn more relevant results.

5. Make your results page more like Google’s

The design of the results page probably has the greatest impact on user satisfaction with search. It should enable the user to quickly identify which of the results is the one they’re looking for.

This means stripping out unnecessary detail (such as last updated date), highlighting instead those things which give the user strong ‘information scent’, like title or site section. This will allow users to more quickly scan the page and pick out the right result.

Google has become synonymous with quality searching.  There’s some evidence to suggest satisfaction with search goes up if the search results are simply made to look more like Google’s, even if the actual results are the same.

Some work on the look and feel of your results could improve user satisfaction. Use AB testing to see how changes in layout and presentation impact on user satisfaction.

6. Personalise results

One of the reasons Google’s search is so good is that it’s personalised. While a search is seen as neutral, in reality it’s anything but; as Evgeny Morozov notes in The Filter Bubble, results are presented based on your searching history, location, gender, and all sorts of other data Google holds on you.

Profiling search by individual may be a step too far for most intranets (not to mention difficult to implement), but you can improve search satisfaction by providing different search results for different groups of users.

So for instance, users at an electrical retailer might search for “Acme Refrigerator”; discrete groups of those users will have different expectations about what that search should return.

  • Sales staff are looking for sales figures
  • Customer service staff want details of the product and perhaps any reported problems
  • Product Development are looking for design specifications

Users will be looking for different content based on their role, department, language or location. With a single search experience, some users will find what they want at the top of the list, while others have to wade through several pages to get the result they need.

By personalising the result, linking results with user data, each group of users (in theory) gets the content they are looking for at the top of their results page, increasing user satisfaction.

7. Add metadata – and allow your users to do it too

Google results page presents a range of pages from a variety of different sources. Intranet search struggles to define the relevance of one page over another, as the site is made up of a relatively small selection of content, from the same sources, using the same words to describe the same things. It’s unsurprising an algorithm can’t work out what makes once page more relevant than another.

The most effective means of tackling this is, annoyingly, sheer manual effort. Adding good quality metadata to the pages people are most likely to be looking for, and ensuring this is prioritised by your search engine, will vastly improve the results and ensure your key content can be found.

Embrace the power of the enterprise hivemind and allow users to tag content. If someone searches for ‘Sales figures’, stuff tagged as ‘sales figures’ by real users is likely to be as good or better than any traditional content crawl results.

8. Optimise your content… and get contributors to do the same

Good quality content on good pages performs better in search. Unfortunately, quite a lot of intranet content doesn’t meet these criteria.

If key content can’t be found, take a look at it and see what the problem might be. Does it have a unique title? Does the intro clearly summarise the content? And does it contain the right keywords?

It’s vital that those contributing content to an intranet understand the basics of SEO and what they need to do to make their pages findable. Before you let people loose on your CMS, give them some basic training on what they need to do to make their pages findable, such as:

  • Keywords
  • Intros
  • Unique (and clear) titles
  • Metadata

9. Analyse

Review search logs regularly; you’ll learn a lot.

What are your most popular searches? These are often seasonal. Watch for peaks in searching and promote relevant content to more visible spots when it’s being looked for regularly.

What are the most common failed searches? One common reason for this is that the content just doesn’t exist. If people are regularly looking for something through search, that suggests there’s a user appetite for it – so create it.

There’s often a disconnect between the terminology used by searchers and that used by specialists who create the content. Look out for this in search and improve SEO, metadata and synonyms lists to ensure content can be found using the search terms people are actually using. Which leads on nicely to…

10. Add synonyms and acronyms

Every organisation has its own jargon, often impenetrable to new starters and outsiders – and a real problem for search.

Most enterprise search solutions allow admins to manage synonyms and acronyms, and can be set up so that a search for CSR will, for example, also return searches for Corporate Social Responsibility.

Again, a bit of effort is needed. Contact all business areas and ask them to send you a list of the most popular jargon in their departments (tip: PAs are the absolute experts at this), and ensure this is reflected in your search engine setup. But thereafter, keep this little register up – projects come and go, and have their own acronyms.

Which brings us on to an eleventh tip (we never claimed to be good at maths!). Like everything on an intranet, search isn’t something to be set up then left; invest a little time in it to ensure it’s still giving users what they want and searching current content well – and your users will love you for it.


There are 8 comments

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  1. Alex Manchester

    Great post Sharon. “We want it to work like Google”. Such a simple sentence. So impossible! People always look fairly downcast when the issues with that request are explained. I think the point about constant refinement is very good too. Google makes something like 500 tweaks (no doubt some are good, some don’t work out) to their search algorithms each year. Epic. Meanwhile most intranet managers are lucky if they can find their way round the search admin environment.

    • @sharonodea

      Too true, Alex. At a conference I was at recently, the speaker asked how many people spent time every month on search. Less than a third of the audience put their hands up.

      Getting search right requires an understanding of your tools and your content, but most of all it takes time and investment. Rarely does it get enough of either, which is why users are so often disappointed.

    • Scott Hitchins

      Great post Sharon – some great points. Didn’t I do a similar presentation at Interaction 2011? 🙂

      • @sharonodea

        Thanks! But no – my presentation was on mobile. We were considering doing Search as part of our Intranetizen lightening talks at Interaction 2012, though.

  2. Kristian Norling

    I agree with Alex. A great post with great advice Sharon. I would maybe suggest to actually do the analysis first before doing anything else, it can be quite revealing for what actions to take first.

    • @sharonodea

      You’re absolutely right, Kristian. There are few projects which wouldn’t be improved by being better-informed about the issues you’re trying to resolve, so I should have made that number one in the list.

      Search analytics takes time, and analysis skills, but in my view it’s time well spent and will greatly improve the quality of your search results. I really enjoyed the presentation you gave on that at IntraTeam. Is it available online?

  3. Richard Owen

    So many of our clients ask “why can’t this just be like Google?” and often go to Google for their intranet search application, unaware that a out of the box solution is not going to work. As Sharon suggest it needs to be tailored this comes at a cost either time or consulting but with 43% of users going straight to search can companies afford not to invest?

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