On the first day of SharePoint Best Practices Conference 2011 in La Jolla, CA, I sat in a session by Matthew McDermott entitled "SharePoint Search -- Challenges and Tricks". He highlighted the basic overall principles of how SharePoint 2010 search works on the back end and some common pitfalls that can happen in any firm when implementing search. He also presented us with a few handy tricks that can enhance the search results experience in SharePoint 2010. One of those tricks is the usage of the link to document content type in SharePoint 2010 libraries.
Link to Document Content Type
This content type has been in place since the 2007 release, so it's not new. However, Matthew's session highlighted an often-forgotten benefit of this content type: using it to crawl external content in SharePoint. Typically, when you want to link to an external source, you'd simply add the link to a list or library. There's nothing wrong with that at all, as Matthew reiterates, but it's not as rich of an experience for the consumer.
Link vs Link to Document
One of the slides in the deck showed the comparisons between standard links and the link to document content type in SharePoint 2010. Standard links are slightly quicker to add and can handle many protocols. Link to document requires one more step for entry and unfortunately doesn't support any other protocols but http and https. But there are two main benefits of using link to document that outweigh the protocol deficiency.
Both of these are related to the search results experience. Standard links in a search result set will appear even if the link is broken. Also, when a link is returned as a search result, clicking on it simply brings you the list item. From there, you can then click on the link to reach the external site. This is not seamless and it’s a bit annoying for the end user.
In contrast, by using the link to document content type, it will actually filter out broken links so they won’t be displayed as a valid match for the search query. Furthermore, any result on the search results page will actually link directly to the external site, rather than to an internal SharePoint list item. So if a search query finds a link to document item for Microsoft.com, then it will immediately bring you to that page rather than a list item showing the URL.
Real World Implications
The real benefit here from an overhead perspective is that you are essentially crawling external content without having to manually point SharePoint Search to an external source. When linking to an external source with this content type, SharePoint will crawl the text so that it’s available on the search results page. So you can give your users the ability to execute basic crawls of external content without having to rely solely on IT.
Certainly you would monitor the usage of this feature and vet it before implementation, but it has great buy-in opportunities for promoting search in your firm. And as Matthew demoed in his session, it’s pretty easy to configure and even easier to teach users how to take advantage of it.