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SharePoint enterprise search gets boost from governance planning

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Although nearly every aspect of SharePoint can benefit from a strong governance plan, MOSS 2007's enterprise search functionality benefits most of all.

Like all parts of SharePoint, there is good news and bad news about governance. For many organizations, the bad news is that it's extremely difficult to incorporate a governance plan where none existed.

But here's the good news: You can quickly configure and improve on enterprise search at almost any time.

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More on SharePoint enterprise search and governance planning
ABCs of enterprise search

With enterprise search the work is never done

Checklist for harnessing Microsoft SharePoint governance

 And when you implement a governance plan for enterprise search , you can see immediate results.

No successful governance plan is written in stone. However, as it relates to search, governance is especially fluid. Live SharePoint implementations change a great deal over time, and this can have a positive impact on search.

What should a SharePoint governance plan address?

Don't have a governance plan yet? What are you waiting for? Here are some of the criteria that a SharePoint governance plan needs to address:

  • Managing scopes
  • Defining content sources
  • Defining and managing content types
  • Identifying best bets and keywords
  • Using third-party tools or custom functionality to extend search, such as a wild card search
  • Training end users

A successful governance plan for search should call for the formation of a search committee to help identify, analyze and properly respond to governance issues, such as enterprise search.

When forming a search committee, it is important to understand that most people who define and configure search in SharePoint are lightweight users at best. Almost all search administration is managed by SharePoint administrators, who do not represent the primary audience of the product.

Of course, the ones who are actually searching for content on SharePoint are the end users. This is not to say that the search committee should exclude SharePoint administrators. It does mean that the SharePoint search committee should include a variety of other user types.

Who is on the SharePoint search governance committee?

Governance committee membership for SharePoint search will vary from company to company. However, consider the following guidelines:

  • One or two rotating positions filled with a knowledgeable end user -- or power user
  • One or more business analysts
  • Server farm administrator
  • Developer familiar with SharePoint's programming options -- specifically, the search API

End users give feedback that is vital, but it tends to be anecdotal. End users speak with the authentic voice of real world experience, but they typically have a weak technical understanding. As a result, their experience -- negative or positive -- must be carefully interpreted by the other committee members.

Business analysts are trained to interpret end user business requirements and map those requirements to existing functionality or new functionality. Analysts may recommend changes to search from an administrative perspective -- such as creating new scopes -- or even recommend custom solutions such as developing new search Web parts.

SharePoint administrators are masters of the current environment. If they don't know the details of a particular configuration -- such as how many records are included in a particular search scope -- they can quickly find out. Administrators provide the empirical evidence. They run SharePoint's search reports and distribute them to the committee. Administrators typically implement the search committee's search configuration decisions.

SharePoint developers absorb all of this information and work with the business analysts to implement custom tools as needed. For example, many organizations want some kind of wildcard search tool. Although some vendors offer these types of products, a company may decide instead to develop its own internally. Developers should participate in search committee meetings so that they can offer advice on best practices for meeting end user search requirements. However, search committee meetings do not take the place of standard systems development life cycle practices. They simply enhance those practices. Search committees should meet at least monthly. A company that is just beginning with SharePoint may want its search committee to meet more often during the initial rollout.

What happens at a SharePoint governance meeting?

After covering a previous meeting's action items, the meeting would continue with end user feedback. Keep in mind that in most cases, this would be anecdotal in nature. The end users answer open-ended questions such as: Is search working overall? Has it improved, gotten worse or just about the same? Does it work better for some groups than others?

This discussion is peppered with specific examples. The end-user members should execute some searches for the committee, demonstrating a set of successful and failed searches. The rest of the committee discusses these results, each from his or her own perspective.

Next, the systems administrator provides search reports. The committee reviews these results.

Depending on the details, some of the following specific action items will result:

  • Define, modify or delete search scopes.

  • Identify commonly misused keywords and consider using SharePoint's thesaurus to automatically correct those searches for end users behind the scenes.

  • In line with common keywords, configure SharePoint's "best bets" functionality to give users guidance at search time on more business-appropriate terms.

  • Identify opportunities to improve end user training. SharePoint search provides a certain obvious Google-like keyword search, which end users find intuitive. But SharePoint search also presents a more comprehensive solution above and beyond simple keyword searches.

  • Identify weaknesses in information architecture. For example, assume users search for a term, "invoice number." At the same time, content type defines that column. This kind of search points to a need for that content.

The committee will find a number of opportunities to improve search through this process.

SharePoint enterprise search can work reasonably well out of the box, although it works best with a carefully defined information architecture and a well considered site taxonomy. True -- it is best to address search from the very beginning. But if it was missed in the beginning -- and this happens frequently -- it's never too late to start. A properly functioning SharePoint search governance committee will lead the way.

Paul Galvin is a Microsoft SharePoint MVP and a SharePoint solutions architect at EMC Corp. Galvin has worked in the IT industry for more than 15 years in areas such as software development, consulting and SharePoint solutions design, where he works with clients to create business solutions using the SharePoint platform. He contributes to the SharePoint community through MSDN forums and his blog at http://paulgalvin.spaces.live.com.

This was first published in January 2009

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