When SharePoint 2013 arrived, we immediately noticed the huge investment Microsoft made into anything related to search. But we still see many intranets designed as traditional internal communications: a home page with a carousel, useful links that are often not so useful, sections you have never clicked on and -- of course -- the weather.
How do the two relate? In this article I will focus on using search to reinvent and make the SharePoint Intranet much more dynamic.
Extermination of the Static Intranet with SharePoint
I am on a quest to exterminate static intranets and start building dynamic and interactive intranets to help users find the right information in today's world of information overload. When I say static intranet, I'm referring to that intranet you have probably seen too often where everything is managed manually and nothing is contextual or directly based on user visits.
SharePoint Search to Lead the Revolution
The search features in SharePoint 2013 make the difference -- they allow us to build a search-driven site and cater to our visitors. What this means is we can now serve content on our intranet that is the result of a search query the user has indirectly done.
When you think of search, you usually think of Google or Bing, where users enter search terms manually in a search box and get results. That’s one way of using search and is also available in SharePoint. But I am talking about building pages where the content is no longer static, but is the result of a search result already written for the user -- search-driven content. For example, this means clicking on the "Contact Us" page and getting it tailored based on your user profile.
The Search Features that Changed the Game
Though misunderstandings still exist as to what continuous crawl actually does, it nevertheless is a big change in the way we use search. With this, a new crawl can be started before the previous crawl is finished. This means we get much more -- fresher -- content, meaning content will be available in the search results after they are added in SharePoint. This creates more dependable search results than previous versions.
Content Search and Search Web Parts
What really makes it all possible are the updates done to the existing Search Web Parts such as search results and refinement. These allow you to easily build a query or add refiners without needing experience in XML or XSLT -- a very welcome change. Content Search is a brand new Web Part built specifically for cross-site publishing and other scenarios when content is driven by search queries. Though the Content Search Web Part looks almost identical to the Search Results Web Part, it has a small but important differentiating factor, property mapping. This means that the person building the Web Part on the page can actually control where the properties will appear in the display of each individual result.
In spite of its misleading name, the Product Catalog has nothing to do with e-Commerce, but rather gives users the ability to turn a SharePoint list into a source of information, such as announcements, events, contacts, people -- any custom list you create -- making this a catalog of content for the search to consume. Microsoft TechNet blog has done an amazing job explaining it in product-centric scenario.
Of course there are many other changes to search that will impact SharePoint and our future intranet but those mentioned above are the more noticeable. They allow us to build content outside of the intranet, then pull them in and display them as we wish in the intranet. The main difference is we will be able to serve the right content to the user visiting based on information that for example can come from his/her User Profile imported from Active Directory. Don’t forget that we get to build these queries now and enforce it directly through the Web Parts we build on our pages instead of having the user type it in a Search Box.
This does not mean we stop taking advantage of the Web Content Management (WCM) features that SharePoint offers with page layouts and publishing content types, but rather investing a lot more in driving those pages to the users using these search features.
The Importance of Social and Interacting With Our Content
Now that we can fix the problem of finding content with SharePoint 2013 search, what about interacting with it?
Without getting carried away with the new buzz of social in the enterprise, let’s focus on the value interacting with content brings to our intranet visitors. We already talked about eliminating the static intranet and instead, building search-driven catered content for our users. But now that they have found the content, how can they interact with it? And I don't mean sharing to Facebook and Twitter but really interacting with the content within our teams in the company.
Can users bring the latest company announcements into their team easily to start a conversation that will be searchable in the future as well as actionable? The people who work alongside of us make it possible for the company to keep running -- that means keeping their expertise accessible and not contained within emails you will never find again. Evaluate the SharePoint Social features or explore other tools such as Yammer and third party tools out there that integrate with your SharePoint.
We’ve all been doing this successfully in the past years with our public websites: taking our analytics and adapting our website to provide the right content to our visitors. But we’ve often dropped the ball when it came to our intranets. We start with the right idea and suddenly get caught up in the details, turning the intranet into an internal broadcast tool instead of empowering our users to find, interact and take action from the content delivered.
Reinvent your intranet.
Editor's Note: Read more from Benjamin in Stop Selling SharePoint Social as Facebook for the Enterprise