whale tail
Long tail search results can identify product ideas, security lapses and problems before they become too large PHOTO: Abigail Lynn

Organizations have slowly been catching on to a not so secret tip — to gain a better understanding of employees, start with their intranet searches.

Looking at the top queries gives you a window into your internal users' interests and the content they most frequently need to find.

And while I'm happy to see people starting to track top search activity, there's another opportunity that many ignore: what the other end of your search logs — the long tail — can tell you.

I know what you’re thinking: “I’m just getting time to track the top search queries, and now I have to look at the other end too?”

Saying you absolutely need to mine the knowledge buried in the long tail isn't a necessity — yet. But in the next year or two, you should allocate some time to start.  

Your Best Bets for Satisfied Users

The bottom of your search logs provide a view on missing content.  

You might think content that was never intended for inclusion on the site can’t be considered missing. Nonetheless, some segment of your user community expects to find it there. 

This may point to confusion as to what content is on which sites. If it happens frequently, you know you have frustrated users. This phenomena is very common on intranets, where topics such as support, HR and product data may be relegated to specific sites. 

Depending on the nature of the content, you might decide to move it, but if it must remain where it is, consider creating a "best bet" that links to the other repository. 

Specific Queries

Are there any general queries with set answers that you can anticipate and process outside of the normal query-results cycle?

Consider your corporate cafeteria lunch menu. Chances are it shows up on an HR or operations server. But if your corporate intranet is getting a large number of queries for various site lunch menus, consider adding it as a best bet to whichever site your employees are searching. 

Another common query with known results are employee names. While it’s possible that an intranet query for a specific employee name may be looking for documents authored by that person, it's likely the searcher is looking for contact information. If you see a query for an employee name, why not display a best bet which includes the person’s name, email address, phone number and location? 

Public Facing Search

Unexpected queries showing up on your public site can be a sign that you’re missing product or marketing opportunities. They may be searching for something your company does not do — at least not yet.  

Use queries that appear for a competitor’s product name as an opportunity to direct them to your company’s competitive product. And keep track of the frequent queries, even if your company doesn’t provide a competitive product. If your site visitors think you do, perhaps your marketing team will want to consider the possibility that you should.

Your public site search can also provide relevant information on security leaks. I’ve seen cases where a public site had a number of queries for a yet-to-be-announced product — a clear indication of a security problem. 

In one case, searches started appearing in the public search site logs for a product using its internal code name a few weeks before the product was due to be released. While the culprit was never identified, it did result in tighter security for subsequent new product releases.

Just the Wrong Word

Another reason queries can show up at, near the bottom or in the "no hits" of your query logs is what is called vocabulary mismatch.  

Your company's vocabulary may not match your users'. US visitors may search for a “vacation rental” while Canadian visitors will likely want a “holiday rental.” Some of those same searchers may have forgotten their runners at home, while the others forgot their sneakers.  

And of course searchers and content authors do on occasion misspell a word or two. 

These mismatches are both easy to correct and easy to identify in many cases prior to your initial search roll-out. But if they show up frequently in your search logs, you’d be wise to correct the problem.

Finally, your search reports could hold information that saves your company millions of dollars and widespread public embarrassment. 

I once worked with a company to improve their enterprise search. The company had been accused of negligence in a product safety lawsuit and had settled for millions of dollars a few years before the engagement.

During our meetings, we suggested they analyze their intranet search logs. On a subsequent visit, they shared the historical analyses of their search logs, which showed a clear trend of product quality issues — the very issues that cost the company money and blemished their corporate reputation.  

Your results will hopefully not reveal such issues, but it’s certainly worth the relatively small sum it takes to generate periodic reports extracted form your pubic and intranet search activity logs.

What's Your Action Plan?

The massive amounts of data your search site activity offers about your internal and external visitors is a real asset to your organization. If you are not tracking and monitoring your intranet search logs, you’re not listening to your users. Get started now!