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Simple ways to improve your intranet search

Thumb up, xray.

Simple ways to improve your intranet search

When we’re helping with intranet implementations, I notice that the big bang launch gets all the attention. But the really good, solid intranets that get used day-in day-out are continuously improved through a roadmap of incremental improvements through the months. The digital team not only releases new features, but also refines the usability.

But not every intranet is supported by a dedicated digital team, so if you’re small team or a lone intranet manager, here are some quick projects, starting with search, that you can repeat throughout the year, to continuously improve your intranet without breaking the budget, or lobbying for months for stakeholder approval.

Take a look at the first video (7 minutes), produced by Igloo Software, which may need you to register, taken from a recent webinar I led for them. Browse this series of intranet mini-projects, or read on to learn how to repeatedly improve your intranet search results.

Video: Improve your search.
Video: Improve your search.

Four steps to improve your search

I do a lot of focus groups with employees and no matter what question I actually ask, people tell me within a minute or so how awful the intranet search is.

Enterprise search.
Content. Index. Retrieval. Results.
Content. Index. Retrieval. Results.

I’ve come up with a four-step process diagram to help people think about search.

It starts with content – somebody somewhere has something they want to share, and it gets published on the intranet.

Then your search engine comes along and indexes it; it works out the words that are pertinent and logs the existence and location of the content.

Step three is that another person will search for a topic, and then the search engine (step 4) provides several results.

Finding your points of failure

An enterprise search diagnostic.

Each of these areas could be a point of failure, and I’ve produced a whole hierarchy of concerns (see preview). Take a look at my ‘diagnosing enterprise search’ article for a full-size view.

The colour coding indicates the root cause of a search problem, so you’ll see my model considers content quality, the tech, information architecture (IA), and people’s digital skills.

Just glancing at the colours, you’ll note that many of the concerns are not around technical issues (green). Most concerns are not about needing ‘a better search engine’, which is good news and bad. The good news is that you don’t need a big budget to improve your search results, but the bad news is that you need commitment and teamwork to fix things.

Action plan

  1. Search logs. The first step is to get familiar with your search logs. Most engines will provide a report showing the top search queries. There might be 30 or 40 queries that make up maybe 80% of what people are looking for, and then maybe another 40 that strike you as important, but not as frequently searched for.
  2. Test the top terms. Now, go on your intranet and search for each of the top terms. Try to use a ‘normal user’ account, rather than your admin account, if possible.

You’ll likely see that the best content (in your estimation) doesn’t appear as high up the results page as you might have liked. Make a note, as you now know your priority search terms and content.

Diagnose the underlying cause.  Use my diagnostic chart for each priority term, and diagnose what might have gone wrong.

Example: Content Issues

Missing content (a content gap) [1.1] is the most obvious failure. Your colleagues in different departments and locations have varying expectations around what topics the intranet should cover.

Fixing metadata [1.2] is a quick win you can get straight on with. Adding consistent, relevant keywords to indicate the category and topics will help the search engine better index content. Metadata is especially helpful when people use different words for the same topic, like when your holiday entitlement page is officially called ‘Annual leave’ but people search for it using words like ‘holiday’, ‘absence’, or ‘vacation’.

Think about the many related terms or synonyms of major topics, like how artificial intelligence is strongly related to machine learning, cognitive services, and deep learning. People might search for AI when they really want to find out what your company does with machine learning.

At a basic level, sometimes just poor titles make it really hard for people to see that the search engine is giving them relevant results. Structuring content [1.3], with titles, headings, and paragraphs is really important. I’ve seen some intranets where every major news article is called ‘announcement’…

Think about monolithic results too, like when you search for ‘parental leave’ but you get a 200-page employee handbook PDF. The right answer is in there… somewhere. It would be better if a simple intranet page provided just parental leave details directly – a better search experience, and a better reading experience.

This is the first topic in a five-part series of intranet mini-projects you can repeatably perform to improve your intranet and employee experience.

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.

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