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Improving the ‘single box’ of enterprise search

Improving the ‘single box’ of enterprise search

Search on intranets has become a little box of desperation. We need to move away from thinking of enterprise search as being a single search box on the top right of our intranets. Instead, we should offer dedicated search experiences tailored to specific tasks. The result is that the user should see search boxes appropriate to the context of what they’re looking at in different places across the intranet.  The technology to do this already exists, so there’s a big opportunity to improve results by a little more effort on the user experience side.

Gerry McGovern points out that we don’t search for “Cheap flights” anymore, but tend to use dedicated search tools like Kayak. For intranets, is our model like Google search for our internal web, or more like a product search within Amazon? This distinction matters: We know Google only indexes a small percentage of the internet (even generous estimates put it at 12%), but we expect Amazon to index every one of its products. Often, people expect intranet search to be like both Google and Amazon, and are disappointed with the results. A 2013 Findwise survey of Enterprise Findability reported that in 64% of organisations it is ‘difficult to find information’.

The thing is, most intranets are far bigger than most websites; enterprise intranets contain millions of pages and documents. Even where websites are very large, they tend to be mono-task sites – databases of items for retail, or reference, such as the US Library of Congress. Intranets are more diverse in the kinds of content they have to retrieve. Websites that become so diverse struggle as well – as anyone stuck in a perpetual loop of Microsoft domains and re-directs will know. Technology improvements such as Microsoft’s Office Graph and Delve (previously known as Oslo) will help people discover content they might like, but we also need to support pro-active searching too.

What we need is a more layered approach to enterprise search – more like finding Kayak on the web and then using the dedicated search experience to refine our flights. SharePoint, for example, has sophisticated options for search refiners that allow nuanced searches on a large library of sales material, picking out only brochures or those for a specific product. This means that individual site owners can create their own search boxes just for a specific set of content. Not everything has to come through the top-right search box.

SharePoint Search

In this SharePoint example, there are two search boxes: top right and top centre (labelled “Search within library”). The second box makes it much easier to do a scoped search.

Crucially, the language of the search interface is specific to the content, just as Kayak talks about flight duration and stopovers. Most users have unsophisticated search skills so they need this level of support. Site and content owners are the people best placed to know what that language should be. For example, different parts of the organisation may talk about ‘suppliers’, ‘third parties’ and ‘partners’ all meaning the same thing.

We do see this kind of dedicated search experience occasionally – but it tends to be inadvertent in the enterprise: when one set of data is held in a stand-alone repository, like a Document Management System (DMS), so has its own search tool. The downside is the DMS’s existence and content tends not to be indexed at all by the enterprise-wide search engine, and the way it presents results can be entirely inconsistent.

Ideally, it is site and content owners that should be driving findability. Their work doesn’t end when they upload content; they need to ask ‘what should I do to ensure people can find what they need?’.

We should design search interfaces and functions that are specific to different tasks, rather than one big search box of despair.


Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

  • Posted at 8:28 pm, 29 July, 2014

    You are spot on about the fact that the technology is available and that more attention needs to be paid to user requirements. However most organisations operate their search applications with minimal skilled support. As a result there is no one with the time and skills to look in detail at task-based search, convert the requirements to a specification, implement the spec and then monitor the changes in user behaviour.

    I would add that I think there are at least two major differences between web and intranet search. First people write content for a web site specifically to have it found. On the intranet they just want to get on with their job. Second if you can’t find what you are looking for on a website you usually have an alternative and the website operator may lose a product sale. In the case of an intranet there is no where else to look, and if the best possible information cannot be found the organisation could lose a customer for a major project and its reputation.

    I think SharePoint 2013 is a special case. Certainly the user-focused functionality is very well implemented, though it still requires a very good understanding of user requirements. However for content that is not held within the SharePoint repository achieving a uniform user experience is a substantial challenge – back to that skilled team of business+IT+information retrieval skills.

  • Posted at 6:01 pm, 30 July, 2014

    The technology is there – especially if you go open source. Microsoft just made life easier for itself (but not for most organisations) by providing an enterprise-scale solution that is optimised for MS Office content in SP2013.

  • Posted at 12:07 pm, 31 July, 2014

    Part of the problem is that enterprise search has too often been sold as a single answer to a big, complex and multifaceted problem: a single search to rule them all. You’re correct in saying that a more requirement-focused approach is required. The problem with getting content owners to drive findability is that there’s often a lack of knowledge about what search can and can’t do (a side effect of the ‘magic’ that has been sold in the past) – for example, if the content has no or incorrect metadata then it’s not going to be found easily no mattter how good the technology. It’s the old GIGO problem.

  • Jed
    Posted at 3:42 pm, 11 August, 2014

    Hi Sam

    I think Martin is right, the technology IS there, but many organizations can’t afford to look past “out of the box” and will not invest in the head count necessary to make the most of that technology.

    I have done a lot of work recently on SharePoint 2013, and it’s not bad, but the OOTB experience is often not great. On the other hand I recently had a briefing from Coveo, which looks like a very good product to meet your requirements to provide different, contextual search interfaces. However who is paying for the JavaScript coder to make the mods – the search team, the intranet team, some other team….. As an ex-consultant who has worked on enterprise search, I would quite often have to inform my client that actually their current search engine was not a pile of crap, but if they invested in the search function / search team they could save themselves the pain of selecting, buying and implementing a new search engine…. they didn’t always listen 🙂

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