SharePoint Search: Kick in the Turbocharger

Only by ramping up the power and usability of the SharePoint search function can you improve navigation, discoverability, and efficiency.

By Cathy Dew

Finding information in your SharePoint environment can be a challenge.

If you use SharePoint for document management, the chances are that you have thousands (and maybe even tens of thousands) of files stored on your intranet. In theory, this kind of system is terrific, because it gives everyone in your organization equal access to any files they might need to do their jobs. With so many files to sort through, though, navigating to the right document at the right time can be mission impossible. Only by ramping up the power and usability of the SharePoint search function can you improve navigation, discoverability, and overall efficiency.

Turbocharging Your Search

You can’t just flip a switch and have a search function that works seamlessly. In a SharePoint site loaded with documents, there is simply too much data for the default search function to sort through quickly and reliably. To get the most out of SharePoint search, you need to turbocharge it.

The first step is to configure the managed metadata for your SharePoint documents and libraries. For some teams, using metadata on SharePoint might seem like a no-brainer. However, the fact is that many enterprises are still using folder structures as the only means of organizing their files. For a small number of documents, this kind of structure can work out okay. However, as you add more documents into the mix, folder structures become increasingly convoluted and confusing to navigate. In almost every case, folder structures end up being such a mess on SharePoint that only the person who created the structure in the first place knows where anything is. This fate is especially likely once you start adding subfolders to your files.

If you want everyone to be able to discover files—instead of just the person who built the folder structure—then you need to use metadata. Having a basic folder structure to break up various categories or departments within your SharePoint libraries is fine, and can make browsing documents a little bit easier. However, instead of adding those subfolders into the mix, try metadata tagging.

The Importance of Metadata

Metadata, of course, means “data about data.” By using metadata to tag your SharePoint documents, you can add descriptive information about the document to the document itself. This data can include document category (or content type), author, department, date modified, and more. (Document names, of course, are also part of the mix.)

Adding metadata to your SharePoint documents will be beneficial to your overall SharePoint search methodology in several diverse ways. It’s important to realize that everyone has slightly different approaches or preferences when it comes to searching through documents. Some people prefer to search by title, but the problem with that approach is that if you get the title wrong, you won’t be able to find what you need. Therein lies the weakness of search in SharePoint libraries that only use folder structures for organization and categorization. Other people like to search based on keywords, department, date, author, or other details. With metadata, you can make these details searchable, thereby making it easier for everyone to find files in the way that they prefer to find files.

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Metadata, of course, means "data about data."

Metadata also gives you a few different options for how to display files. Whether you are sorting through search results or just browsing a folder in your SharePoint library, you can choose to sort the documents using your different metadata columns. This feature can assist with the search process and make it easier for users to find exactly what they need.

Crawled Properties and Managed Properties

Many teams think that just adding metadata to all their SharePoint documents will immediately improve the functionality of the search function. This belief is somewhat of a misconception. If you truly want to get the most out of SharePoint search, you will need to understand the difference between crawled and managed properties, as well as how you can take advantage of both.

Let’s start with crawling. In internet terms, crawling is essentially a pre-search.

Take Google as an example. As powerful as Google is, it didn’t just appear out of thin air on day one, automatically able to search everything. On the contrary, first, Google had to understand the internet and know what it was searching. In other words, it had to prepare a road map or index that it could reference later to deliver results. Web crawlers are responsible for exploring the web and indexing pages so that Google can process and search the content. When you conduct a Google search, you aren’t, in fact, searching the web; you are searching Google’s crawled index of the web.

The SharePoint search function requires the same kind of pre-search indexing to work correctly. While your SharePoint library is, of course, a smaller place to search than what Google has to deal with, it’s still big enough that the search function doesn’t automatically know where everything is or how everything works.

When you create new metadata columns, SharePoint’s crawler will find them and add them to the “crawled properties” of your site. This process is the first step to making those properties searchable, but you aren’t done yet. Just because SharePoint has created crawled properties for your new columns doesn’t mean SharePoint knows to search them. The information is indexed, but you still need to tell SharePoint search to use it. SharePoint is set up this way because not all the crawled properties it indexes are useful for search.

That’s where managed properties come into the equation.

In SharePoint’s search scheme, there is a list of managed properties. This section is essentially a smaller index, featuring content that SharePoint uses for search queries. If you have recently created a new set of metadata columns for your SharePoint documents and want to make them searchable, you need to create new managed properties. A managed property is simply mapped to the corresponding crawled property, so that the relevant content becomes searchable.

To add managed properties, you need to navigate to the search schema. This feature can be found at both the global and local levels. If you want to add managed properties for your entire SharePoint environment, find the search schema in the Central Administration menu. If you just want to add managed properties for a site or site collection, navigate to the site settings page. Once you add managed properties, your new metadata columns should be fully searchable.

Keyword Search and Other SharePoint Search Capabilities

Once you have configured your metadata columns and added managed properties to make sure they are indexed correctly, you are ready to search. However, even using SharePoint search once you have “turbocharged” it, is something of an art.

Sure, you can just toss keywords into the search bar and get results that way. Once SharePoint is crawling not just the title of your documents, but also all the different metadata columns you added into the mix, a simple keyword search can deliver fairly accurate results. Plus, since you can sort your search results by metadata column, you can find the data you’re looking for in the exact way you prefer to find it.

However, it’s also possible to get more accurate results if you know what to input into the search bar. SharePoint has a “smart search” function, in the same way, that Google lets you create advanced searches. With Google, it’s rare for the average user to need to enter an advanced search. With SharePoint, it’s indeed, more likely, because you probably aren’t conducting general searches. On the contrary, you are searching for a specific file, created by a specific person, featuring specific words and phrases, etcetera. As such, knowing how to conduct a smart search is essential if you want to turbocharge SharePoint search all the way.

There are two ways to conduct a smart search in SharePoint. The first is to open the Advanced Search page. Here, you can enter keywords, key phrases, words you wish to exclude from your search, and more.

The second option is to use just the search bar. If you know how to enter your search correctly, you can conduct a smart search without even going to the actual Advanced Search page. For instance, if you are looking for exact keyword phrases, put those phrases in quotes. If you want to exclude results that include a particular word or date, add a minus sign before those words. If you want to find a specific file type, enter something like “filetype:pdf” or “filetype:docx.” If you are looking for something by a specific author, type “author:NAME.” You can also search by title or date, or add extra keywords to the search.

Learn More about SharePoint Search Today

If you use SharePoint for document management, then having an optimized search function is essential. Following the tips laid out above will help you get more out of SharePoint search. If you need help implementing these changes, or if you are still having trouble with your search function even after following the instructions in this article, 2Plus2 can help. Go online to schedule a free consultation with our team or call 510-652-7700 today.

Cathy Dew
Cathy Dew – CEO + Information Architect
Cathy focuses the company on our mission – Real results. Every time. Information architect and strategist, Cathy is passionate about making software work well – the function, the feel, the result.
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