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PHOTO: abi ismail

Your intranet is one of your organization’s most important assets. Employees visit it on a regular basis, and more importantly, work there and spend a significant amount of time there.

Search is an essential part of the success of any digital workplace, and intranets are no exception. But in order for search to succeed, you need two things in place: good quality taxonomy and metadata.

Search Supports Making Critical Business Decisions

Information workers work with a massive volume of content every day: they create, and they also consume. They have to be able to find the document they need, decide if an item is the one they need or if they should keep searching. They have to be able to use the content the way they want. And they have to make business-critical decisions fast, based on the content they find.

However, it's often much easier to ask an experienced colleague where to find corporate information (for example, a customer contract), than to search on the company’s intranet. And sometimes it’s even easier to re-create a document, thus generating duplicates, than to locate the original, intended one.

The primary reason employees choose these workarounds is the user experience of enterprise search. When search doesn’t work, users get duplicate, multiplicate or obsolete results, leading to frustration. When it does work, the reaction tends to be, “So what? I knew that already.” Good search is like air or water: we don’t realize its importance until we don’t have enough.

Related Article: Digital Workplace Success Relies on Strong Search

Search Doesn’t Understand People

A common complaint is that search does not “understand” the user’s intent. The truth is search isn't supposed to “understand” anything — it does not have the capability to do so. Search must be supported by complementary technologies such as text analytics, curated content, human-edited taxonomies, auto-classification tools, and more. Implementation requires the analysis of different file formats, the selection of the most relevant result according to analytics, discarding duplicated and out of date content, and many more.

It’s easy to complain, but it’s hard to identify the root of the problems. Sometimes we need complex research: the search engine, the content, the users’ intent, the context of search, etc.

search box sharepoint

How can you make the transition from meaningless to meaningful and relevant search results? Unfortunately, the only way to do it is to spend time optimizing the content for search, which starts at the moment when an employee creates a new document, or even before. Each new document must be saved according to specific guidelines and with the correct metadata. Of course, that means you have all those guidelines, practices, governance rules and metadata definitions in place.

The Importance of High-Quality Metadata and Taxonomy

If you can get your information architecture and metadata right, your users will be able to find and use the right content for their needs. Moreover, you will win an advocate and advisor for improvements in the future. 

However, if you don't have good quality metadata in place, the chances your search will be useful are slim. Without metadata, your content is no more than random files stored in a network drive. Findability is very poor. Usually, the only way to get to a document is to navigate there. The number of duplicates and multiplications grow exponentially. You are on a fast track to creating a content silo — with close to zero findability of your documents.

Another common issue is when you have metadata about the content, but it’s bad and inconsistent. This might happen for several reasons:

  • Your users have not been properly educated on metadata.
  • Your users are not sure how to create proper metadata, or how to use the forms the right way.
  • Your users are not motivated to spend even a couple of minutes to fill in the properties.
  • Or, a combination of all of the reasons above.

The result is incorrect, inconsistent and messy metadata that makes content usability and findability even worse. Bad metadata is misleading. Inconsistent metadata is hard to track and correct. There is no way to overcome these issues other than fixing the metadata.

Why? Because having good metadata and taxonomy is the basis for good search, as well as for a good intranet. It provides improved usability as well as findability of content. It enhances search applications. Users spend significantly less time searching for content. Therefore, the overall user satisfaction improves, too.

Related Article: Improve Enterprise Search By Putting Your Metadata to Work

Metadata Options in SharePoint and Office 365

Different content management systems provide different ways to support taxonomies and metadata. In the case of SharePoint and Office 365, they provide several metadata types, both managed and unmanaged.

Businesses often rely on the unmanaged metadata types in SharePoint: single line text, multi-line text, number, date/time, etc. In case of lists or library columns with any of these types of data, users enter their own values with only limited verification options. The users are free to use different forms of terms as well as synonyms without any control. Businesses can set up rules and governance practices about what values should be used, but it’s everyone’s own responsibility to follow these guidelines. This approach quickly devolves into a set of values that is very broad, uncontrolled and inconsistent.

In other cases, metadata is managed by “metadata owners” or taxonomists: a group of users responsible for creating, maintaining and curating the metadata as part of the organization’s knowledge management system.

Using managed metadata types has several benefits, including:

  • Controlled, consistent set of metadata values.
  • Rules and governance practices provide the quality of managed metadata.
  • Simple data discovery.
  • Increased confidence.
  • Reliance and usage of staff knowledge in relation to business rules and definitions.
  • Improved cooperation between business and IT.

SharePoint and Office 365 offer several ways to store managed data types:

  • Choice
  • Lookup
  • Managed Metadata

Related Article: Why It's Time to Update Your Legacy SharePoint Intranet

Search Relies on Metadata

It might be not obvious how much search relies on good quality metadata and taxonomy. An easy-to-explain example is the user interface. Every search application has a user interface that displays various metadata fields: the title and author of documents, customer name, sales lead history, project ID, location information, invoicing data, contact information, etc. But these properties are not only displayed: we can create search verticals by these properties; use faceted search (refiners); results can be sorted by them; ranking models are based on them; and more.

Considering the potential value they provide, using search-driven applications on a company’s intranet is still not as popular as it should be. However, if you've ever added web parts (apps) to any of your intranet pages, the content they provide comes from the search index. These components are called search-driven apps. Some common examples:

  • My recent docs.
  • My tasks.
  • Team or project dashboard.
  • Management dashboard.
  • Document center.
  • Policies and procedures center.
  • Templates center.

The common denominator in these examples? They collect, aggregate and display a specific set of content that can be identified by specific metadata fields: content type (task, policy, procedure, etc.), personal information (created by, modified by, assigned to, responsible, etc.), status (open, not started, in progress, etc.), or other criteria. The key to delivering this content is having the metadata fields ready, so they can be stored in the search index and used when creating these search-driven apps.

Make Metadata Your Friend

Your intranet’s (and the whole digital workplace's) success relies on strong search.

Your search’s success relies on high-quality metadata.

Take action to improve your metadata, then enjoy the enhancements and improvements you achieve.