Organizations are desperately looking to build intranet portals that their employees will actually use. 

The first step in building such an intranet is to listen closely to what people are asking for, and then using the technology to turn those requirements into robust solutions. 

Typically, people focus on an intranet's look and feel when starting an intranet project. The last article in this series explored current trends for home pages and options for planning the branding and design of an intranet. 

In this post we'll dig into another common requirement: improving the process of finding content. We'll also address considerations for companies looking to make that big SharePoint on-premises vs. SharePoint online decision.  

'We Need to Easily Find Content' 

Finding content comes up as a topic early on in every new intranet project I start. Search tends to be a hot topic because it is often ignored and underutilized in SharePoint implementations. 

Powerful search components have been built right into the last few SharePoint versions thanks to Microsoft's 2008 acquisition of FAST Search. With these additions, companies could realistically stand up their search servers, make no further customizations and users would see improvements from previous implementations. However, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. 

I strongly recommend surveying users specifically on their search and navigation behavior. Ask questions about where they go to find information currently and what the experience is like for them. 

The survey should touch on the abundance of search results. Think of it as the Goldilocks and the three bears dilemma: If users receive a low number of search results, focus on how you're using metadata and build a stronger taxonomy. If there's too many results, look into how content refinement can be improved. 

Something as simple as adding a site column for “Department” to each library and using that column in the refinement panel on the enterprise search results page can improve search results. This is not complicated to implement and gives users a much better chance of finding what they need. 

SharePoint 2013 made the process of creating and adding custom refiners extremely simple. It can be implemented completely out of the box and requires no code. I always recommend at minimum one or two custom refiners to start a new intranet out on the right foot.  

Get Governance on Board with Search

Search should also become part of your governance team's regular discussions. 

SharePoint 2013's release included reports that deal specifically with search results and usage. It is strongly recommended that you run and review these reports monthly for at least the first six months of the intranet’s life. You can find these reports under Popularity and Search Reports on the Site Settings page and include the following:

  • Top Queries by Day/Month (most common search terms)
  • Abandoned Queries by Day/Month (results were received but weren’t relevant)
  • No Result Queries by Day/Month (no results for a specific search term or terms)

This information is vital to a successful enterprise search implementation. 

Navigating Your Way to Adoption

Learning Opportunities

Solid navigation is key for locating content in an intranet portal. Typically we see companies mirror their site navigation directly off of their organizational chart. While there's nothing inherently wrong with setting it up this way — in fact, most users have come to expect it — when was the last time someone in HR went over to read the Finance team’s mission statement? Sure it works, but isn't there a better way? 

An interesting trend has been emerging of companies streamlining navigation, making it completely subject matter based. Instead of seeing a list of departments, users see things like Forms, Policies, Benefits, Directory, etc. Content can still be managed on each department’s site, which retains permission control, but only content that is relevant to the entire organization (like forms and policies) would be rolled up to the navigational page. 

When I have explored this option with customers we typically use an online card sorting exercise to identify relevant subject areas for users. Virtual Card Sorting is a great way to get the information that you need while causing minimal disruption to users. I recommend Optimal Workshop’s tool Optimal Sort. Changing up something as important as navigation obviously requires a great deal of planning, but if you are looking for significantly higher adoption, it might just be worth it. 

Search Gets Smarter with Delve

While the information above relates to both SharePoint on-premises and SharePoint online, one feature that's only available online ties directly into finding relevant content. That feature is Delve. 

Delve is more of a general Office 365 feature, rather than being tied to SharePoint, as it works with OneDrive, Outlook, Calendar, etc. It learns a user’s behavior, including who they regularly communicate with, what documents they typically access, and what meetings they are a part of. 

This tool is another sign that Microsoft is listening to user demands. People want content that is actually relevant to them and their work, and while Delve has plenty of room to grow, seeing a Microsoft business tool take such a huge step in machine learning makes search nerds like myself enthusiastic about the future of Office 365.

search on SharePoint Intranet

Image from 

Still to Come

We'll be covering additional intranet requirements in future posts, such as:

  • 'More online collaboration and less email'
  • 'We need integration with the other tools we use'
  • 'I need people to be engaged and actually use the intranet'

So check back later in the spring.

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