Many tout the benefits of exploring "top 10 search queries" as a means to gain insight into your internal users, their interests and the content they most frequently need to find. 

But the phrase “top 10” already starts with a bit of a misnomer. 

What we really want is the "top N” queries — the ones that generate enough volume to be interesting. This may be 10 queries, it may be 100 — it depends. 

Let me explain.

Visualizing Search

Take all of your users' frequent queries on a given intranet site and note the number of times they used each one. Build a histogram of common searches from these results. Generally, you’ll see a few popular queries (or variants thereof), and then a drop in number of queries for other terms.  

Note, you should break out each of your intranet sites into its own unique histogram: mixing results from Portal, Help Desk, HR Site or other internal content might be interesting, but is not very actionable. 

"Lunch menu" and "vacation schedule" will likely top your queries, and you can probably guess what content should appear as the top result. If your search platform doesn't provide the proper content, you have some work to do — either ‘overloading’ the document with keywords, or promoting it using tools hopefully provided by the platform.

Depending on the scope of your responsibility, you may see queries on one internal site that produce better results on a different site — whether another intranet site, or possibly on your public facing website. 

And while search managers may be tempted to silently curse the ignorance of those who search for the vacation schedule on the pubic site, take the high road. When you see a number of queries that are inappropriate to a given site, suggest searching a different site. In fact, we’ve seen sites that offer to redirect a query to a different site, where chances of finding the answer are higher.

Plot the terms and frequencies of all of your queries. Tools like Excel or Numbers make this task remarkably easy. You're looking for the ‘knee’ of the curve — the point where the number of unique queries begins to drop off. 

Queries below the knee are worth looking at, but focus on the terms ‘upstream’ from there. If these top queries have great results, the result is more satisfied search users.

Things get interesting with those queries that search for business content, rather than ‘facts’ like lunch menus or holiday schedules. No single “right” document may exist that fully answers the query. 

Now's the time to call in reinforcements: your content team.

Search is a Team Sport

Ideally search owners pull together help from throughout your organization. In some organizations, this group is informal and ad hoc. In others, it may be a formal "Search Team” or even a “Search Center of Excellence.”  

No matter what they are called, or how formal or informal the participation may be, enlist these people to help identify both the query intent and the likely best results. Sometimes this may be a single document, but more often it will be a set of content, perhaps in a particular repository.  

Determining user intent for one of these ‘gray area’ top queries, will help provide another best bet — even if the answer is no more focused than a repository or a directory. And remember, system logs can show where the user visited after the query: follow the trail as it is likely the user was browsing for the best answer too.

If you are unable to find a clear best set of content, go to the source. Ask the person who submitted the query their intent and boost accordingly — remember, this is a top query, so a number of people perform the same search.

Baby Steps Towards Search Quality

While tempting, don't get overwhelmed. You may have 50 or more queries above the knee in your logs, so clearly this will take time. 

But the good news is you don’t have to roll everything out at once: it’s fine to do one or two terms at a time. 

It may take a little more time at first because you’re learning the process. But as you complete more of the top queries, you'll get better at the process, getting faster with each one. And in the process you build up relationships with your team and users — more co-conspirators will make the process easier and faster. 

Remember: there's no finish line for this process. Once you make it through the list of search terms, keep at it. New terms appear, and others may disappear. 

Enterprise search is dynamic, with new terms cropping up regularly. You may even discover seasonal trends. 

Keep at it — a little bit every week — and your overall search quality will improve and produce happier users. 

Title image "Skating Girl" (CC BY 2.0) by  FaceMePLS