7 recent improvements to Microsoft Search

Search is one of the most challenging areas of the digital workplace, but nevertheless one of the most important. Employees need to be able to quickly and effortlessly find the information, content and files they need to carry out their work. However, the increasing volume of data, the quantity of different repositories in which information and content can be found and the unrealistic expectations of employees who want everything to work just like Google make it difficult to excel in search.

Improving search requires a variety of different tactics, including working with content, reducing the number of items that can be searched for and configuring the search tools and experiences at your disposal. Taking a holistic and ongoing approach to improving and managing search is usually best.

If you have a Microsoft 365 digital workplace, the good news is that Microsoft continue to invest in search to support improvement. In recent years, they’ve started to drive a more unified search experience across the 365 universe, as well as the Windows 10 desktop. Search is also underpinned by the Microsoft Graph, bringing more personalised and valuable searching to a variety of different use cases.

In this post, we’re going to look at some of the more recent improvements to Microsoft Search that are helping to improve findability and the overall digital employee experience for those with a 365 digital workplace.

One element that has helped support the improving search is a well-designed Search & Intelligence area of the Microsoft 365 admin centre, where admin teams can receive insights, add search answers, configure filters, add data sources and control customisations, all in one place. Most of the features rolled out by Microsoft discussed in this article are controlled from here.

1 Improved support for people-centric searching

In 2020, Microsoft introduced a number of features that improved the ability to find people – a key use case within the digital workplace that underpins communication and collaboration – as well as knowledge management processes around expertise location. The people-centric search provides the ability to carry out a search relating to an individual.

There is also the ability to find skills and expertise that take into account any self-declarations of expertise that are added to your employee directory or equivalent. This is supported by machine learning that identifies areas of expertise from a user’s content and interactions, and makes suggestions for individuals to add expertise to their own profile.


People-centric search in Outlook mobile and SharePoint

2 Improvements to answers

Answers is a search feature that can prove incredibly useful when implemented well. Users can access short, Google-like answers directly in any search results that are returned, saving time and increasing findability and knowledge flow. For example, an answer could address a frequent question or provide additional information, such a list of public holidays during the year. Sensing that value, Microsoft has extended the Answers capabilities across three areas: acronyms, calendars and files.

Furthermore, administrators can now associate answers with different acronyms, so using a natural language query can ask what a particular acronym stands for. This is a useful feature for new starters in organisations where the amount of TLAs (three-latter acronyms) can reach bewildering levels. Meanwhile, calendar answers allow users to find meetings within their search results including queries like the meeting name, the time of the meeting or even an attendee. Similarly, you can now also look for Microsoft 365 files.


Acronym answers in Microsoft Teams desktop and mobile

3 Extending the search

As well as the ability to add extra Answers, Microsoft has also extended the search in a number of ways, including introducing:

  • The ability to search for Power BI assets
  • Searches for conversation threads from Yammer, Teams and Outlook, with a more straightforward capability to filter these through a conversations category
  • A catalogue of floor plans
  • An image search
  • A topic search that looks for the topics which have been automatically identified or manually created via Viva Topics.

Again, all these elements fulfil that more Google-like experience that employees are seeking, or address specific use cases such as searching floor plans that can help in desk booking processes.

4 Helping administrators to improve search

To improve findability and get the best out of Microsoft Search, it needs to be actively managed. To have a real impact, this should be done in tandem with other improvements, including tagging your content and even training users and content owners.

In the past year, Microsoft has rolled out additional administrative features which support improvement efforts. One of the most important of these is a useful form that allows users to provide feedback about their search experience and the accuracy and quality of the hits returned. The small form can ask for multiple choice or free text answers, and is embedded with a call-to-action within the search page. Specific user search feedback can be enormously powerful in refining searches, continuously improving findability and the overall search experience.

Complementing this is a Search Insights board that helps deliver analytics, such as the most popular searches being run across your tenant. This can provide clues on trending topics that you may want to address in content, search answers and more.

Finally, Microsoft is also rolling out additional options to customise search with custom filters, and tweak how search is displayed. Anything that makes it easier for admins to configure search and provide specific filters for their organisation will improve both findability and the digital employee experience; however, a corresponding effort to tag pieces of content to match any new filters may be required to get real results.


Microsoft Search analytics, administrator view

5 Adding Graph Connectors to non-365 applications

Improving digital employee experience is often about simplifying and reducing the number of different channels, tools and systems that employees need to use. Bringing different apps and information sources together into one search experience is one way to do this.

If you’re using Microsoft 365, Microsoft Search is likely to form the basis for your enterprise search experience. Here, your users may well want to view search from other key enterprise systems and repositories such as ServiceNow and Salesforce. To support this, Microsoft is investing in various Graph connectors which will enable digital workplace teams to unite search experiences and provide search for content beyond the 365 environment. These connectors allow you to incorporate data and files stored in Azure blog and data lake capabilities. The enterprise websites Graph connector is also designed to bring core intranet content into Microsoft search experiences.

Further enhancements to Graph connectors are also on their way, including the ability to cluster search results from one source such as ServiceNow, and add key HR data to profile information from your HR system of record. There will even be the ability to change the status of content from within the search experience, for example, updating a ServiceNow ticket. Additional connectors are also due to be added, including Atlassian products Jira and Confluence. Collectively, we think these changes will support the evolution of good DEX and encourage more people to search.

6 Improvements to search within specific tools

The Microsoft Graph and the ability to embed the search experience across the Microsoft stack is also improving the search within individual channels and tools across the 365 suite. Microsoft continually roll out these improvements to searching with Teams, Office, Outlook and even the general Windows 10 desktop. Some of these enhancements meet specific use cases, such as a new Org Explorer view within Outlook that provides a more robust and pleasing searchable org chart.

7 Personal query history

Microsoft Search has the ability for an individual to view their personal query history as they enter a new search. Using type-ahead capabilities, it provides a quick reference to recent or frequently performed searches that can then be re-typed with one click, saving time for users. This is just a small example of the kind of modest tweaks that can make a different to users.


Microsoft Search layout designer

Improving Microsoft Search

Improving Microsoft Search is an important task. Microsoft are investing in search to facilitate this with some of the features mentioned in this post. Despite these advances, improving search can still be a complex and fiddly process. If you’d like to discuss how to get the best out of your Microsoft Search, then get in touch!

SharePoint intranet search: planning refiners for faceted navigation

Faceted navigation is part of every major intranet search engine. In SharePoint, this feature is called Refiners, and the navigation panels name is Refinement Panel. It is responsible for allowing the users to access the search results filtered and organised according to a pre-defined classification system.

To create refiners on a SharePoint intranet (on-premises or online), there are several steps to follow. In this blog post, Im summarising these practical steps and also provide best practices.

The Process

Search refiners are always discrete properties of the content presented as search results. First, they can be metadata in the source system, which can be used as is. For example, the author of a document, project ID, etc.
In other cases, we have to prepare the metadata, by using an auto-classification system, for example. In this case, the metadata we need in search is not available in the source system, we have to extract it from the content. The extraction of the metadata can be done by a specific dictionary, or according to pre-defined rules. For example, location info, the topic of a document, etc. Which is not available as metadata in the source system but implicit included in the content.

Once the metadata is available (either as is, or generated automatically), we have to consider if any normalisation is needed. Normalisation might be required in the following cases:

  • We have multiple source systems, and the metadata is available (or has been prepared in the previous step), but the different systems use different names for the same property. For example, author, creator, authored by, writer, created by, etc. can be used for the same thing, but with different names. The end users dont mind the propertys name in the source systems, what they want is to be able to refine the search results by the property. In this case, what we have to do is to create one property in the index and map it to each of these various instances, then use it on the user interface.
  • We want to transform the data. For example, instead of displaying ZIP numbers on the refinement panels, we need the names of the cities instead. Another typical example is transforming e-mail addresses to person names, for example displaying Agnes Molnar on the refinement panel instead of the e-mail address of [email protected]
  • The properties have to be combined. For example, if we have two separate properties for Last Name and First Name, a good practice to combine them into one refiner value in [FirstName LastName] (Agnes Molnar) or [LastName, FirstName] (Molnar, Agnes) format.

Of course, these transformations might be combined as well. In SharePoint though, the capabilities are limited. Although we have a feature called entity extraction, this has a very limited functionality. In the majority of use cases, we need additional, third party solutions.

Terminology

Content Metadata
Content Metadata is the set of properties, which the content has in the Source System (implicit or explicit). In most cases, different systems (and subsystems) have different set of properties, therefore normalising and unifying them is a critical step in every Enterprise Search implementation.

Search Metadata
Search Metadata is defined in the Search Schema, and consists of Crawled Properties and Managed Properties (see below). Search Metadata is essential for every Search Application, as it describes the results, can be used for filtering and sorting the results, refiners, and also display on the Result Set or Hover Panel.

Crawled Property
Crawled Properties are the representations of the Content Metadata in SharePoint and Office 365 Search Schema.

Managed Property
Managed Properties are the Search Properties which can be used on the User Interface, and in Search Applications. To define where to get their values from, they have to be mapped to the proper Crawled Properties.

User Experience Considerations

Once the metadata is prepared and added to the search index, we can start using it on the user interface. In SharePoint, Refinement Panel is a Web Part available out-of-the-box, which can be customised in an easy way.
The Refinement Panel We Part has various data types to display as refiners (facets): numbers, text values as well as dates. Some configuration can be done in Display Templates, which describes how the refiners have to be displayed. For example, whether to display the item counts or not (see https://searchexplained.com/refiners-in-sharepoint-2013-search/).

We can also create (or purchase) custom developed refiners for advanced scenarios. For example, when we need charts or maps to be used as refiners, but also to create refiner hierarchies (for example, based on a taxonomy).

Conclusions

When planning refiners for faceted navigation, the primary thing to keep an eye on has to be the user needs and requirements. Driven by them, we have to plan the properties accordingly, as well as the user experience. In several cases, we have to use the out-of-the-box capabilities, which are powerful although limited. In other cases, its possible to extend these capabilities with custom and/or 3rd party tools, therefore, we have more freedom during the planning phase.
Whatever your situation is, planning refiners has to be a thorough process, as it is a major part of the overall user experience.

Top 10 Search Features in SharePoint 2013

As someone who has been focusing on Enterprise Search in SharePoint for years, I can say I now know it inside out. There are things I like a lot, there are others I dont like too much. In this blog post, I decided to collect 10 new or improved features that are my top favorites and that make SharePoint 2013 Search a real enterprise solution.

1 One, Integrated Enterprise Search Core

In SharePoint 2010, there was a Search Engine (a.k.a. SharePoint Search), but we also had the opportunity to install FAST Search for SharePoint (a.k.a. FS4SP) in order to get real, enterprise level features. FS4SP had to get licensed and installed as a separate product, as a separate farm, and then we could integrate it with SP2010.

In SharePoint 2013, the whole story is much easier: the big FAST Search engine got 100% integrated into SharePoint, therefore no separate installation and maintenance is needed. As soon as you install SharePoint 2013, you get the big engine instantly.

2 Content Processing, Entity Extraction

Content Processor is a component that sits in between the Crawler and the Indexer. It is responsible for processing the crawled content. It does all sorts of clever stuff including language detection, extracting security descriptions (to determine who in your organization is allowed to see the content), parsing, linguistic processing (to understand the real meaning of the content), entity and metadata extraction, etc.

SharePoint search - content processing and entity extraction

There are two things Id like to highlight here. First is the Web Service Callout step. This option is very useful if you need to perform custom operations on the crawled items before they are processed further.

The second step to highlight is the Custom Entity Extraction. Most organisations have specific terms (a.k.a entities) that are commonly used in everyday business. Its useful to tell the search engine to look out for some of these words because they carry particular significance for that company . For example, product names or regions where the company operates. The Custom Entity Extraction process extracts words (entities) from the content and use them as metadata in the index. This metadata can be used for filtering, ordering as well as facets on the Refinement Panel. The entities are pre-defined in a dictionary which is created by the organisation. See below an screengrab which shows how custom entities can be useful on the search results page to help the user zero in on what he is looking for.

SharePoint search - entity extraction and meta data

Both Web Service Callouts and Entity Extraction work on any type of Content Source, therefore can be used to unify and standardize the metadata in the index.

3 Continuous Crawl

Besides Full and Incremental Crawl, theres a new option in SharePoint 2013 called Continuous Crawl. This is a very dynamic and agile way of crawling that uses SharePoints change log to pick up the changes and enumerate the items which have to get crawled. One of its biggest benefits is in its flexibility and agility: the new and changed items can get indexed in minutes or even seconds, therefore we get a good basis for real, always up-to-date Search Based Applications.

Second, Continuous Crawl can rut at the same time as Full Crawl, therefore it can be used to keep the index refreshed or up-to-date, even if the Full Crawl takes a long time (days or weeks).

Continuous Crawl is available on SharePoint content sources only.

4 Search Administration on Multiple Levels

Due to the complexity of Search in SharePoint 2013, search administrators have complex tasks and responsibilities. Delegating some of these tasks might become essential.

In SharePoint 2013, search administration tasks can be delegated to Site Collection administrators and even to Site administrators.

5 Troubleshooting Enhancements

As Murphys Law says, If anything can go wrong, it will. Enterprise Search is really complex, and any of its components can go wrong. The better troubleshooting tools we have, the easier to fix these issues.

In SharePoint 2013, we have enhanced logs and reports on the server-side that can be used to debug and identify the causes of issue. The enhanced Developer Dashboard can be also used for debugging, and despite its name, its not for developers only.

SharePoint search - developer dashboard troubleshooting

6 PowerShell

PowerShell is Microsofts scripting technology that has modules for SharePoint administration and automation, too. A huge improvement in SharePoint 2013 is that we have more than 150 commands for Enterprise Search management, including setup and deployment, topology management, crawling, query processing, metadata, etc.

7 UI Enhancements

One of the most important UI enhancements is the new Hover Panel, where the search results metadata and related actions can be displayed, as well as its outline and preview if the result is a document. Besides the Hover Panel, I also like how easy it is to customize the way search results are displayed: Display Templates are responsible for the display of the results, the Hover Panel and the refiners. Display Templates are simple HTML and JavaScript files, with structures that are easy to understand. Customization is easier than ever.

SharePoint search - display templates and UI enhancements

8 Result Sources

Result Sources are used to define the index to be used in our queries (is it a local SharePoint index or a remote one from a separate content source such as Lotus Notes?). They also describe the subset of results to retrieve (these were called search scopes in SharePoint 2010). Results Sources can be very useful to define verticals for our Search and ultimately help the user focus her search.

9 Query Rules

Query Rules help us to define rules that are based on the users intent when searching. For example if I search for Harrods department store there is a high likelihood that I want to know the location or see a map; view opening and closing times; or to get a link to their online store. Technically speaking, Query Rules contain conditions and actions. A condition can be based on the query itself (contains one or more specific keywords, matches terms defined in a Managed Metadata Term Set, etc.) or on the user (for example the department he or she works, job title, location, etc.). Of course, these conditions can be combined.

Actions are all about promoting the right results to the user – displaying specific Result Blocks or modifying the current query.

Some examples:

  • If the user is based in Europe (condition), display a Result Block that highlights the latest documents related to the European market (action).
  • If the query contains the keyword define (condition), display the results (definitions) from the Company Knowledge Base (action).

10 Search Query Builder

Last but not least, Id like to highlight the wizard that is used in every Search Web Part in SharePoint 2013. This is the Search Query Builder that helps not only in building the query to be used, but also in choosing the result source as well as filters, ranking models, etc. It also gives us the opportunity to test the results of the current settings before saving anything. This can speed up the configuration of search dramatically.

SharePoint search - custom query builder

Summary

As you can see, Search in SharePoint 2013 has a lot of components that can be and have to be used in order to get a real, enterprise-level Search Application. In this blog post I highlighted what I consider as the top 10, but of course, there are many more, and the beauty of Enterprise Search is always in the details!

Agnes Molnar is the founder of Search Explained, a Content Formula partner.

http://SearchExplained.com
[email protected]

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