Improving Findability Is Not Just About Metadata

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Coming back from SharePoint Saturday DC this past weekend, I was reflecting on some interesting conversations from the event around the state of search in SharePoint, especially with the pending UX advances surrounding Oslo and Office Graph, which we should begin to see trickling into Office 365 later this year. Feedback from SPSDC participants was enlightening, though: generally speaking, people are not happy with search results within their enterprise collaboration platforms (not so much about the technology, but more to do with their implementation and UX).

Within each conversation, I brought up the difference between "searchability" and "findability," with the former focusing on the interface through which we search for content (best bets, high-level site topology, keywords presented on the search page) and the latter focusing on improving the assignment of metadata, ensuring the user experience around making data "findable" is positive and, ultimately, effective at driving/improving improved search results.

I find the topic fascinating, and still believe search to be the most important aspect of any knowledge management platform. If you can’t find your content, what good is the platform?

Daniel Tunkelang (@dtunkelang), head of query understanding at LinkedIn, discussed the frustration of end users in a presentation last summer (2013) entitled Enterprise Search: How do We Get There from Here? and is definitely worth a read as you start to outline your own path forward to move from a focus on Searching, and instead focus on Finding. (I especially like slide 9 of his deck, which encapsulates the reality of the metadata problem in most organizations)

What is Searchability versus Findability? Is it just semantics at play, or is there really a difference between building out a solution focused on finding the right content rather than just searching for content? Is it wordplay? Somewhat, but there is real meaning behind it — and it is something all organizations serious about improving the search experience for their customers and employees should consider.

Most organizations approach the problem by gathering all content into one location and slapping a search tool on top, assuming that this will provide a stellar search experience — or at least solve the problem quickly so that they can move on to other issues. Unfortunately, this is rarely the right approach.

There are multiple problems with search. Few organizations get it right. It’s what my good friend and consultant Paul Culmsee (@PaulCulmsee) calls a "wicked problem" in which there may be many paths forward, but the longer you delay taking action, the more complex and ugly the problem becomes. Rarely does ignoring a problem help solve that problem — and search problems are quickly compounded by fast-growing content databases and an ever-expanding corporate focus on collaboration. The volume of content in your organization is likely not decreasing, but rapidly growing. Building a search entry point into that content is a company imperative.

A speaker at a SharePoint event once described the Searching versus Finding problem as "If your child is lost, do you want to search for your child, or find your child?" Obviously, the goal of building out your search capability is not about simply having search, but in helping people find the data they need quickly and in a format they can use.

The key to developing a strategy focused on Findability is more than just expanding the use of metadata, but in understanding the end user search experience end-to-end:

  • How do people search?
  • What is the expected result?
  • Was the search successful?
  • How do you capture feedback?
  • What do you expect end users to do to add to the process to help improve future searches? (metadata)
  • How much should you automate?

As you think about your own SharePoint deployment, and talk to your end users about their search expectations, familiarize yourself with the search features in SharePoint 2013 on TechNet, as well as specific guidance on planning for your search implementation.

The number one complaint about knowledge management platforms from end users is that people are unable to find their content. The most successful SharePoint deployments are the ones where the time was taken to understand end user expectations, and build to meet those expectations. Post-deployment, even your ongoing governance activities should be centered around end user feedback and priorities, because at the end of the day — if people can’t find their content, they’ll go elsewhere. Search is a key ingredient to driving value out of your SharePoint deployment.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.