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3 simple things IT can do to improve SharePoint search

Generally speaking, your experience with quality or not-so-quality search results in SharePoint is going to come down to a healthy mix of how well you know how to search and improving search engine optimization of the content within your network.

But there are some things that your IT department can do to improve search results too. For the most part, these are features that SharePoint offers that you need to request IT to activate or take advantage of, though some can be performed by Site Owners. For the options that can be done by Site Owners, I still suggest you get in contact with your IT administrator so they can help you out in planning and troubleshooting.

Let’s be clear though: just because I’m posting this doesn’t imply there’s some sort of secret “beast mode” in SharePoint search. These options either offer you as a business user the option to make your content easier to find or these options improve how you use the search engine. Some of them will require some real work when it comes to how you store your content, but they can definitely be worth it. So let’s dig in.

Promoted Results

When you’ve got a document or a web page that needs to be easily found based on an obvious or practical search term, you can basically pin that item to the top of the search results page. In SharePoint 2013, 2016, and Online, these are called Promoted Results; in SharePoint 2010 they were known as Best Bets.

Promoted Results are useful when there’s one extremely relevant hit that people are probably looking for, but the results list will likely spit back a lot of extraneous results. Take for example, a search for human resources should get you to the HR site, benefits to the current benefits documentation, budget to the current published budget, expense reports to the current forms, slide templates to the branded PowerPoint slide templates, etc.

Promoted Results are almost like the old AOL key word. Remember those? If you input a certain term, it basically brought you straight to the destination as a sort of shortcut around having to know web addresses before everyone knew what “dot com” meant. In SharePoint’s case, a Promoted Result won’t bring you to the result, but it will bring it to the top of the results list.

Promoted Results are especially useful for documents and files that update on a timely basis, where old files are “archived” (which usually means left to live indefinitely wherever they are). Think budget documents, strategic plans, benefits overviews, evacuation plans, dashboards and reports, the list goes on.

They’re also handy when other files that you don’t own are muddying up searches that should be pointing to your content. It’s a way to overtake other content that’s basically owned by lazy content owners, or aren’t even owned anymore, but you lack the authority to delete the content.

Most of this stuff you likely want to keep for historical record as their own files (not just old versions of newer documents), but being old, popular files, they’ll end up at the top of your search results. A Promoted Result slips the newer, correct document above the organic search results, ensuring your searchers are actually getting to the right files.

As you can see, Promoted Results open up a ton of doors.

The caveat to Promoted Results is they depend on the content owners — usually internal service organizations like human resources, information technology, finance/accounting, payroll, internal communications, and the like — to be vigilant in making sure their customers (everyone else in the company) are finding the right files. You can’t depend on IT to suggest this option to all of those teams.

Something to be wary of here, too, is multiple files vying to be a Promoted Result for the same search terms. It’s entirely possible that HR, IT, and accounting may want to fight over getting their policy page as the Promoted Result when searching policies. Somebody has to play judge and jury for that one and it may come down to upper management.

Only IT can institute a Promoted Result. I found this blog post useful to learn how to do it. For IT teams that work with Promoted Results, I strongly suggest you keep documentation (basically a running list) of active Promoted Results, including the keywords that are reserved, the files/pages they point to, who requested the result, the date it was implemented, and any expiration date that should be considered.

Result Sources

When you click a global search box, you have the option to search certain types of information, including “Everything”, “People”, “Conversations”, and “This Site” by default. But what if you could search a specific group of sites? Say, all sites owned by or related to human resources, or accounting, or whichever team you’re on.

You can, actually. And in SharePoint 2013, 2016, and Online, they’re called Result Sources; they were formerly known as Search Scopes in SharePoint 2007 and 2010.

Result Sources give you the option to set up a search source that includes only certain sites. This is great for content coming from one team, where the team wants a quick way to search only their stuff. Thanks to permissions control in SharePoint, outsiders can use the same Result Source and their results will only include the files and pages they have access to.

But let’s take it another step. You can actually use SharePoint to search shared drives (public drives, file shares, file servers, whatever you like to call them) as well. And you can make a shared drive part of your Result Source. That means you can use that human resources Results Source to search all HR SharePoint sites and shared drives all with the same search box.

Only IT can set this up, so you’ll have to work with them if you want it. They can set up a Result Source using these instructions and can include shared drives as search sources using these instructions.

Custom refiners

The default search results page comes with refiners on the left side of the page. They give you a quick way to remove certain results by targeting specific file types, authors, and date ranges for the results you’re looking for. They can be really useful to get rid of the extraneous hits that you definitely don’t need, potentially bringing that file you’ve been searching for from the second or third page of results to the first.

And the best part about these is you’re not limited to the three that come with search out of the box. Additional refiners can be added to help you pare down your results by different categories. Now, this isn’t necessarily an easy process. It presumes you’ve either set up a good taxonomy or metadata structure, or that you’re willing to create one.

How do you use it? For the files in your site (or multiple sites), you need to implement a taxonomy, basically a category structure. A good example of that would be, say, document type. For every file you upload into SharePoint, you tag its document type, whether it’s, for example, a template, policy, agenda, minutes, planner, memo, letter, etc. (Learn more about building taxonomies with metadata.)

Once all the files are correctly tagged, you can set up a refiner that lets you filter for only certain document types. So refiners could give you the option to filter your results by giving results that are only meeting minutes (the custom refiner), in Word document format, written by John Smith, sometime in the last month. This can be pretty powerful.

To reiterate, this option takes work from the users to ensure they use a taxonomy and metadata. You’ll want to get help from IT when setting up that taxonomy because it can be complicated. Once the taxonomy is set up, IT can add the refiner to the sites that should have them. Some good instructions on this are available here.


Search can be better! And your IT department can help you do it. But it requires you to take some initiative. And hey, why shouldn’t it? You’re the one that wants better search results, right?

I like this approach because it gives you an opportunity to meet the people that make your systems run for you. Socializing with that crowd is a good thing, it promotes idea sharing and builds a portfolio of proven practices that can benefit others within your organization.

Plus, we IT folk can always use another friend. The dark, window-less, basement dwellings get lonely once in a while.




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Matt Wade

Matt Wade

Microsoft MVP • Office 365 & Microsoft Teams specialist • NY→USVI→DC→NY

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