Why enterprise search is NOT like Google search

enterprise searchDear colleague,

Thank you for your feedback about the company search engine.

So, you want our Search to be “more like Google”.
I would like to explain a few differences between Google Search and our enterprise SharePoint Search. It will not solve your issue immediately, but it may help you understand and take the right actions.

1. Showing up in search results = putting in effort to be found.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) means that you organize your internet website and your content in such a way that search engines can find your content and can show it in the results when certain search terms are used. SEO is a job, a role, a discipline. This means that every internet webmaster who takes a site seriously, makes an effort and spends serious time and money in order to turn up high in search results.
(S)he takes “findability” into consideration when (s)he creates content – (s)he adds keywords, metadata, uses headers and subheaders, and adds descriptions to pictures, to name a few things.

So… search results can be manipulated a little bit.
Does this make you feel a little different about the value of those Google search results?

Now, on the intranet, you and your colleagues just throw documents into a folder and expect our search to find exactly what you want. I admit that our old SharePoint search engine is not as good as the newer versions, but in every version the quality of the search result will never be better than the quality of the input. In other words: garbage in = garbage out.
I have said this before: SharePoint is not for you, it is for your colleagues. Your colleagues should make their content findable!

2. Different vocabularies will mean different results

On Bing, Google, and other public search engines, you will get millions of results for every word.
Within the enterprise, the vocabulary is much more limited and focused on an organization’s terminology. You may get 1 result for “nightingale” (because it is the name of a project, or an employee) and a zillion for “weekly sales” or “budget”.
If you are looking for a document called “Dairy Drinks Marketing budget 2014” and nobody has ever bothered to add the product group, department or year anywhere in title, properties, description or metadata, it may be a tad hard to find between the other “Budget” documents.

3. Intranets are dumping grounds

Most intranets are home to current content but also to archived content. Sometimes this is a conscious decision, sometimes content is just forgotten or left there “just in case”. If the site owner does not consciously delete old content, or stop it from being indexed in Search, you will get all this old stuff in your search results as well.


4. Dedicated Search resources are a luxury

I have been told that companies like Google employ hundreds of people to develop, test and tweak the algorithms to help good original content show up first.

Any idea how many people most organizations employ to tweak enterprise search? People who will look at common search terms and their results, who try to match content to a query, who can create Best Bets for company-wide useful content to show up in Search? Consider yourself lucky if you have 1 fulltime Search resource. Mostly, it is a side-job, if it is even mentioned in a role description at all.

5. On the intranet, you are searching in a different way than on the internet

You may not be aware of it, but on the internet you are generally happy with anything that appears to meets your query. On the intranet however, you are looking for a very specific piece of information.
You do not have the same expectations and criteria. Volker Grünauer explains this well.

So…What are YOU going to do to improve Search?

Although you have the full right to expect your search and find experience to be perfect, I am afraid that it is more realistic to lower your expectations a little. I hope I have been able to explain why. If you want to blame anyone, please blame your colleagues for not taking your needs for findability into consideration and for using the intranet as a document dumping ground.
I assume that, now that you know better, you will not repeat their mistakes if you ever become a content owner!
So, here is what you can do to make your content findable:

  • Give content meaningful names and titles, adjust document properties and add metadata.
    Mark Morrell has written a nice series of “Publishing Standardsthat may help you.
  • Remove old content from your intranet or at least remove it from Search.
    I have written about intranet Spring Cleaning and general Housekeeping so you may find some useful tips there.

Best regards,

Your intranet manager.


Complaints about Search on the intranet, saying “It should be like Google”, have annoyed me for years, and I have long wanted to craft a response.
Just recently, Dana Leeson asked this question on Twitter.

This finally gave me enough motivation to write this post, for Dana and for everyone else who is tired of hearing these comments.  Any suggestions for more reasons, or towards more sarcasm are welcome! 🙂

[November 5, 2014: Item 5 has been added after suggestions from Ria Breuer and Volker Grünauer. Many thanks!]

[July 21, 2015: Joel Oleson has written a completely different article on this topic with almost the same title – I love that!]

And if you have suggestions to improve Search, please add it to John Mancini’s post.

Image courtesy of bearvader at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

11 thoughts on “Why enterprise search is NOT like Google search

  1. Volker October 31, 2014 / 12:28 pm

    Hi Ellen,

    great post. Actually I’d like to add one very simple reason which I always tell users if they want a Google alike search in Intranets.

    There are two main search patterns:

    – first pattern search
    – known item search

    First pattern means, you are happy with any search result that gives you a good answer. For example: searching for a recipe with having specific ingredients in mind. The first result shown in Google which is a good match with the ingredients you have in mind, is a good result for you. There might be thousands of good results.

    Known item search means, you are looking for that one exact document and of course the actual version of it. So with the recipe example it would mean: you are looking for that one recipe how your grandmother always made the dish. You won’t find it in Google easily (even if you grandmother would have put it online somewhere).

    You use Google a lot for first pattern searches whereas Intranet search is more often used for known item search. That one single truth document…

    Actually I’d say, about 70% of searches inside the organization are known item searchs whereas maybe maximum 30% in web search are that pattern. Of course, every search engine has much more troubles finding the single truth document rather coming up with thousands of somehow alike documents.

    That is the main reason why Intranet search will always be more complicated. And even if you use the Google engine inside your org, it will not match the expectations of users fully.

    I actually wrote a blog post about it a few years ago – but in German 🙂 http://www.advatera.com/intranet/warum-sind-nutzer-mit-der-intranet-suche-unzufrieden/



    • Ellen van Aken October 31, 2014 / 1:05 pm

      Thank you Volker, what an excellent addition. I was not aware of this terminology, but it makes perfect sense. So, even if we fix the metadata and the housekeeping (my personal hobby horses – or frustrations – as you may have seen), it will never be the same. I will include this in my trainings, because I am sure “my” users have never realized the difference. Very helpful!
      Thanks again!

  2. simonmaceverest November 5, 2014 / 4:37 pm

    Apologies in advance… spotted this on Twitter and it featured trigger words (Sharepoint, Google, SEO, etc.)
    This article feels a bit like ‘victim blaming’… ‘you’re not searching right’ and ‘our intranet content is neither good nor well-managed and that’s your problem’ aren’t particularly helpful for users. And it feels a bit like search is being used here to solve the wrong problem – e.g.

    – if you’ve got content managers using the intranet as a dumping ground, they need to not be content managers any more, and their content needs to be off the intranet. It’s not even a debate – they’re making your ‘enterprise’ less efficient/effective.

    – if your content managers aren’t describing images, or structuring content properly, send them on a diversity course (because their content is not accessible) or make them not content managers any more

    – if your search engine can’t handle synonyms and alternative spellings, get a better search engine.


    The people who *should* have the ability to publish on your intranet are the types of people who do ‘SEO’ without realising it, specifically because, as you say, they’re writing content for their colleagues, not themselves. It is not good enough to say ‘search resource is a luxury’ – it’s a necessity because so much effort gets put into (wasted) publishing vanity or ‘just in case’ content that only gets in the way of ‘getting the job done’.

    But there’s a big role for the intranet manager too – ‘search’ gives you a ton of data on the problems colleagues are trying to solve. You can use that data to promote helpful answers and content, e.g. to translate a search for ‘holidays’ into ‘best bet’-type search results pointing to ‘public holidays – when is my office closed’ or ‘annual leave – what is my entitlement’, rather than just providing a sharper focus on moribund, unloved and unorganised content.

    These problems aren’t *exclusive* to ‘Sharepoint’, and the solution isn’t *necessarily* ‘Google’ (but *often* the problem is the freedom Teamsites give bad content managers, and the solution often is ‘do what Google does’).


    • Ellen van Aken November 5, 2014 / 5:16 pm

      Hi Simon,
      Thank you for your comments. The entire point of this post was to rant, because “Google-like search” is an ongoing headache for many intranet managers, so yes, it is rather black-and-white without the necessary nuances. And trust me, I would never send this to my end users! 🙂
      You are completely right in all the things both content owners and intranet management can do to improve the search experience. However, in real life it turns out that, in spite of all the training and instructions that I give to content owners, many of them do not spend effort to make their content findable. Also, there are not many companies that think Search is important enough to spend money and resources on. I agree this is an essential role, but if management is not prepared to hire someone, there is not much you can do. Sadly, that is a situation many of us are in.

  3. Miles Kehoe November 8, 2014 / 1:34 pm

    Well said, Ellen and Simon; and it’s a pleasure to meet you both thanks to Twitter! At the recent Enterprise Search conference in Washington, one of the attendees had a different way to put part something similar to one of your points: you really should have millions of virtually identical ones on every topic, each with slightly different words and slightly different content; and your users should be happy with any one that gets close to meeting their need.
    And Ellen, with respect to search managers: Google have hundreds of people evaluating search quality, but they also have ‘bots’ that evaluate every search, looking for something ‘unusual’ – maybe ‘no hits’ or very few matching documents. When that happens, the bots call in a human. Think of what happens when you search for a FedEx tracking number: chances are good that no document in Google matches that ‘query term’. I imagine when that first started happening years ago, the bots noticed and a human looked into it. What could thy want? What was their next search? Ah! “FedEx”! Then Google can reach out to FedEx, find out what algorithm describes a valid FedEx tracking number, and if a new query meets the pattern, suggest Fed Ex. What; interesting is it you take an exiting FedEx track number, change any digit,and search again, it’s probably going to return zero hits – because it has ti match the FedEx pattern for a valid tracking number. Most corporations have no one looking at queries, and they get the result quality they paid for. /s/Miles

    • Ellen van Aken November 9, 2014 / 8:59 am

      Thank you, Miles! I am convinced organizations can improve their search, especially looking at queries and results. Your FedEx example would work as well, albeit differently, in the enterprise. Within an organization employees tend to look for a smaller subset of information, so it should not be that difficult to solve some of the “no result” queries. I once looked at a SharePoint site collection’s search log and I was surprised at what I found – there was even one frequently occurring query I could improve immediately by adding a link to that result to the homepage of that site collection. Of course there were also some less obvious ones, but I was happy with that quick win…and it took me 15 minutes at most. If only organizations would recognize the value of that type of work.

  4. Robert Taylor December 15, 2015 / 12:55 pm

    Ellen, I think this is a great article, you’ve written. I find it unfair to accuse you of ‘victim blaming’ because I find that’s precisely what you’ve avoided doing, correctly, in my view. I do, however, also find real merit in all the comments made as well. You’ve made a good attempt to explain some things that we all suffer from. I have experienced (still do) all of this.
    What troubles me still is what we call the ‘knowing/doing gap’ and how that plays here. So, here’s what I mean. If we say, as we do, that we know that a big part of the answer is to get content owners to properly post and tag their content, then that sounds like we know a big bit of the answer. However, that answer is as big a challenge as the original problem! I often get the ‘rational’ answer that I have to train people (done that), provide guides (done that), mandate things (well, I tried that too) – as if these ‘rational’ answers will solve it. But they wont, because the problem isn’t that people haven’t been told and trained and shown and helped; it isn’t that we don’t have a file plan and mandatory metadata. The problem is, will people actually do what they know they should? Eat more healthily. Get exercise. So on. They’ll do it when they have to or when they decide to for themselves. It’s the big change management problem in little. Making it impossible to do the wrong thing isn’t really available to us either because that level of control will kill the engagement and other outcomes that we really cherish – cherish more than ‘being tidy and effective’ even. So that leaves us with senior management using their legitimate role based power to enforce behaviour. This they will do when they perceive it to be important (eg matters of law and finance and safety and so on). I just wonder whether this kind of issue will ever/should ever get this sort of attention?
    The other answer may just well be a Google-like answer: not the Google of today, but just maybe there will some day be a feasible technical solution that is so powerful and smart that it can tag and sort content for the user; that it can optimise search itself. I’m not talking about the tools available in this field today – but of a Nirvana. Maybe one day.

    • Ellen van Aken December 20, 2015 / 4:43 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Robert! What a great analogy – tagging is like exercise. But as long as we have nothing better, and there are too few people responsible for search in an enterprise, it has to be done. Now, I am very curious for things like Delve, so who knows, the solution may be underway!

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