I’ve just come back from another highly successful KMWorld conference in Washington where over 900 people seemed more than happy to be entombed in the subterranean conference suites of the Renaissance Hotel for four days. With no specific intranet track this year, presentations on intranets popped up in the Knowledge Management (KM), SharePoint and Enterprise Search tracks.
In the conversations I had there with intranet managers, a common theme stood out: the under-appreciated value of search in intranets.
Many of the delegates I spoke with who had intranet management responsibilities were looking forward to the imminent move of their intranet onto SharePoint 2013, but seemed not to have worked through the implications of moving either from SharePoint 2010 using FAST Search Server for SharePoint or the more radical search upgrade from the search application in the Standard CAL license. Search is much more than an add-in in SharePoint 2013 -- getting the best from the application requires a complete reassessment of the positioning and performance of search in the current version of the intranet.
In the case of non-SharePoint intranets, it still seems to me that the value of search is often not appreciated, a situation that also applies to a very large number of websites. The use of personas in the development of intranets is now widely adopted but rarely is there enough detail in a persona to provide a good enough basis for optimizing search performance and getting the best blend of browse and search.
I thought it might be useful to review some of the best books and reports on intranet search so that intranet managers had a good range of resources available to them as they prepare to write their intranet development plan for 2014.
Defining User Requirements
The chapter on search in Information Architecture for the Worldwide Web remains a masterpiece of writing and insight even though it was published in 1998. It is possible to download the chapter as a PDF. Although the focus of the book and the chapter is on website architecture the basic principles hold for intranets.
The definitive book on search development is "Designing the Search Experience" by Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate. This was published in late 2012 and without any doubt has to be on the digital bookshelf of any intranet or website manager. What both books emphasis is the need to take a considered view of search based on a sound knowledge of user's needs. Steve Krug’s book "The User is Always Right" sets out how to develop personas but the emphasis is on website development -- as far as I am aware there is no equivalent book on intranet persona development. In an enterprise environment at least users can be interviewed and guidance on the process of interviewing is exceptionally well presented by Steve Portigal in "Interviewing Users."
The Technology of Search
I think that it can be of value to understand just how search works so that the opportunities and challenges can be more easily assessed. My own book on "Enterprise Search" has two chapters on search technology and Sue Feldman takes a deeper dive in "The Answer Machine." A requirement to understand the technology of search is especially important in the case of SharePoint 2013. BA-Insight has published two excellent e-books on the subject, Agnes Molnar offers a training video and there is an interesting analysis of just how much FAST technology there is in SharePoint 2010 and 2013 by Marcus Johansson.
When it comes to search metrics there is one book that says it all -- "Search Analytics for Your Site" by Lou Rosenfeld. Although the primary focus is on websites, the book offers intranet managers a wealth of relevant advice. It is especially important to compare and contrast page click traffic and query results metrics so that the right balance is achieved between search and browse.
Search User Interface Design
There are a number of good resources on search interface design. The topic features in Designing the Search Experience and both Luke Wroblewski and Greg Nudelman have written books on how to build search into the mobile experience. The most comprehensive resource on intranet search is Volume 6 of the Intranet Usability Guidelines from the Nielsen Norman Group. This 181-page report contains 113 design recommendations based on their usability research and there are 140 screenshot illustrations to supplement the findings. The report also covers employee search. A word of caution about this report: Some of the 42 case studies date back several years (there is one screen shot from 2005) and search technology has moved on quite significantly over the last few years.
Although these resources will be of value, nothing replaces allocating time to conduct a range of searches and taking a user perspective on the outcomes.
Editor's Note: Read more from Martin on the importance of search in Search as a Decision Support System