Improving Intranet Search

Improving Intranet Search
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The search engine sucks!” is the single-most common complaints we hear from employees (regardless of company and industry). Naturally, most immediately blame the search engine. They should blame themselves.

“It was the number one thing that our associates (employees) said needed to be improved,” says Karen Downs, Intranet Program Manager for H&R Block.

Ten years ago I wrote the article “The search isn’t broken, we’re broken.” Ten years later, not much has changed in most organizations, but the technology is advancing and making it easier for us… if only we would do our part, and help the technology.

While the search technology itself sometimes is the problem, the biggest problem is almost always content; specifically, a lack of controls and process for tagging and controlling content. Search technology has advanced impressively in recent years and yet inaccurate and irrelevant search results continually defeat intranet search queries.

Though some search engines may be sub-par, the more likely problem is an absence of people, processes and rules for managing information.

“People are lazy,” Cory Doctorow, a technologist who founded the popular weblog Boing Boing (http://boingboing.net/), told me when I first talked to him 10 years ago. “People are remarkably cavalier about their information and how it is stored. This laziness is bottomless…”

In other words, we create a lot of content, but spend little or zero time properly naming, categorizing, tagging it, and ensuring that it is kept up to date. In fact, though it varies in most organizations, most intranet content is out-of-date, and completely relevant — 80-90% of it is never used, and no longer serves any purpose.

One way of capitalizing on the potential of the search function to insert keywords or metatags within the content. Most content management systems (CMSs) have this feature, but rarely is it used or enforced enterprise wide. Tagging and keywords requires rules and a rulebook, otherwise known as the corporate taxonomy. A taxonomy is a set of rules, or dictionary, for classifying or cataloguing information – whether on the Internet, intranet or shared drives via a LAN or WAN (see Don’t forget to add the tax(onomy)).

Metatags, simply put, are the tags or data that describe the information on a content page. Think of a metatag as the tag on your shirt collar: it identifies the type of shirt and describes it with information about the materials and the manufacturer. Metatags can be used to describe content in terms of keywords, description, department, date, author, etc.

However, searching the intranet is fundamentally different than searching the Internet:

  • Employee intranet queries are generally far more precise in nature than the average consumer web search
  • Employees have to find information quickly to do their jobs – not finding the right information is not an option
  • The Internet doesn’t have a taxonomy; an intranet taxonomy is an absolute must

There are six key differences that make intranet search far different than Google:

  1. Inbound links – Google results are primarily based on the number of links pointing to a page. There are more links pointing to a page, the higher the result. This is not true of intranet search.
  2. Role-based Results – The tasks employees use information vary widely, depending on their department and their role within their company.
  3. Multiple Methods of Searching – Standards for search relevance is higher in business. Employees want a single, correct result to their request.
  4. Multiple Information Repositories – Corporate information is spread across a range of business applications, databases, content management repositories, email, etc.
  5. Multiple Languages and File Formats – Employees need to access business documents in a huge array of word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, graphic, multimedia, compression and encoding formats, and often in multiple languages.
  6. Security & Compliance – Access to corporate content must be securely managed in the face of a matrix of security, government regulatory mandates, and privacy concerns.

Intranet search technology has come along way in ten years. Search filters and features such as relevance ‘tuning’ (where search results and rankings can be ‘tuned’ to meet changing employee information demands and priorities) and manual keyword association (best bets) certainly help any engine’s effectiveness.

The bottom line: search is more than technology. Effective information retrieval and knowledge management principally requires:

  • Governance: rules and defined processes (e.g. taxonomy and metatagging)
  • Employees who are not only willing to follow the rules but actively participate in sharing information and knowledge
  • Effective supporting technology (search, content management, etc.)

There are some fairly small improvements, however, that can make a huge impact.

H&R intranet search enhancements

                                H&R intranet search enhancements

“We needed more information in order to improve search, so we added the search feedback link to the bottom of the page to begin tracking specific examples for what people could not find,” says Downs, who adds the Feedback link was the single-most important change H&R Block made to intranet search. “We learned that there were four reasons why people couldn’t find stuff…

  • Content does not exist (rare)
  • Content exists but in a different repository (frequent)
  • Content exists within the scope of content that the search engine can reach, but the language used in the content is different than the language used by staff (frequent)
  • Appropriate search result within the first three results, but the user didn’t click on it (frequent)

In response to the challenges, in addition to search feedback, H&R also implemented a bold new user interface for results:

  • Bold headings for search results
  • Icons to indicate what type of content it is
  • Key Matches (administratively forced links)
  • Last modified date information added to search results page
  • Scoped Search functionality (allows user to scope the results down to just the type of documents they are looking for)
  • Content owner names and last modified date information to all pages
  • High-profile content was moved from separate repositories into the portal – resulted in a whopping 19% decrease in calls to the call center

Like most enterprise challenges, there is no silver bullet, no one thing that can be done to improve search – and it certainly doesn’t come off the shelf. There is no quick fix for your search problems. It requires a lot of work and diligence and it starts with process and rules. Of course, if your content owners don’t follow the rules and prescribed process then your search engine will continue to suck.

H&R Block is but one of a dozen key presenters, including Google, Coca-Cola, Bayer, and others, with detailed case studies at this year’s Digital Workplace & Intranet Global Forum conference in New York (Oct. 25 – 26). Early-bird registration is only $890 for the full conference.

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1 Comment

  1. Toby Ward

    On LinkedIn Frank S. note that: “When discussing in our company, it helps also to remind people of the following difference: In the internet the pressure to optimize for search is with all content authors, in the intranet it is with the system owner (Communications/IT/HR). This can not work out…”

    It’s a good observation. The pressure is, however, on all employees contributing content, but the business owners of the intranet MUST first provide the governance, and those rules should be baked into the system. Governance is mission critical. All content creators must take care of their content, and label and tag it accordingly, but the company must provide the system and governance to do so consistently across the enterprise.

    Reply

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