Fixing SharePoint Search

SharePoint Search is often misunderstood and maligned. How often do you hear stories of people not being able to find what they are looking for and giving up when trying to find something? How do we make Search better?

Let’s start by explaining a few basic things about Search in SharePoint Online.

  • Search crawls content in your SharePoint sites adding new items usually within 15 minutes
  • Search scopes are contextual to where you are. Organisation, Hub, Site, List or Library
  • Search is highly configurable, but most people stick to the defaults
  • Search indexes both metadata and document content
  • Search result quality is directly related to the quality and structure of your content

I recently reviewed a SharePoint site that had nearly 400,000 documents in a single Library, with folders per department. Someone had migrated the fastest way possible and probably had little to no understanding of SharePoint. The result, Search was barely usable and so end users reverted to navigating by structure to find what they were looking for. No benefit over the old file server.

In another example, the organisation was complex with lots of subsidiary businesses sharing a common environment. SharePoint was reasonably well structured. They had put effort into the architecture and implemented some metadata. They had different problems, the same key words existed in multiple versions of the same documents, duplicated to meet the requirements of each subsidiary. Search for the Leave Policy and get dozens of results, including the Leave Policy, rosters, leave request forms and obsolete versions.

How do you fix this?

The first step is to understand the problem. Something that is an issue in one organisation might not be in another. Gather insights by checking Search reports, ask end users for feedback and my favourite activity, just try search for some common key words with your favourite business representative watching. Are they happy, sad, or shocked?

Improving Search is a Team Sport

We cannot fix Search by ourselves. It requires a team, and that team might just be everyone.

Consider who will be involved in these activities:

  • Adding Bookmarks for common key words to show the right result first
  • Creating custom Search Result pages for specific business needs
  • Configuring managed properties to allow filtering and refinement of Search results
  • Archiving – moving old content out of the default Search Scope
  • Sharing knowledge on how to Search (show people how to use it better)
  • Tagging content with metadata
  • Naming documents properly

There are many more things you can do, but the point is some tasks are specialised and others are done by everyone.

Organised and relevant content

Perhaps the biggest impact on Search is the content itself. This can be especially challenging when content was “lifted and shifted” from file shares. There are a few things you can do that will have a significant impact on how good or bad Search performs.

Having content organised into sites, that keep related content together not only makes it easier for end users to navigate to content, but it also helps Search. Trying to minimise sites and taking the ‘one big library’ approach usually has a negative impact on search because the Site Level scope will literally contain everything.

Moving old content out of the Search scope is also a good idea. Creating an Archive area helps declutter Search results. Don’t forget that this can include unused Microsoft Teams and content that is no longer actively used.

Remember that Search results are security trimmed. You cannot see results for items you do not have permission to see. This can be both a positive and negative. Think about who needs to see content.

Managing Search Scopes


The Bookmark feature of Search, allow you to specify the URL of an item that always appears at the top of Search results when a specific keyword is used. Something I like to do with Intranets is create pages that help answer common questions, a resource or knowledge page. The next step is to setup Bookmarks for common search terms that promote the page to the top of the Search Results page. For example, creating a page about Leave that has information and links to leave forms, the leave policy and other leave related items. Adding a Bookmark to this page for search terms such as ‘Leave’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Study’, ‘Bereavement’ and ‘Sick’. Now if someone searches for “bereavement”, the Intranet page on Leave will pop to the top, making it easier to find.

Managing Search Bookmarks

Managed Properties

Managed Properties are metadata values that are registered with Search, allowing searches to be filtered or refined by their values. They can be used with Modern Search and other search based webparts including Highlighted Content.

Modern Search webparts (PnP Search) with Managed Properties for refinement has many uses. For example, a Contract Library containing many contracts and related documents could use Search to find contracts and then refine by supplier, type of supplier, document type or other custom metadata fields, allowing the end user to quickly refine their initial search to locate documents efficiently.

Managed Search Schema

Final thoughts

There are many things we can do to improve the performance of Search and make it a more useful tool for our end users. It is however often something that is forgotten, not understood, or simply considered to hard to tackle now. How much time do people spend searching and what is the impact if they cannot find something or worse find an old version?

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