SharePoint People Search - to Sort or Not to Sort

People Search - People Search - People Search. There are some flaws in SharePoint's current People Search, both regarding functionality, the algorithms used for the "phonetic" search, the query suggestions, but also how the default search interface is set up. In this post I will talk about one specific topic - the sorting of People Search Results.

One common question I get from customers regarding SharePoint Search is:

"When I do a Search and get a bunch of people results back, most of the times I just don't understand the sorting - why isn't it sorted alphabetically?"

How are the results sorted by default?

So by default, the results are sorted in one single way - by rank/relevance. This means that it is sorted by what is calculated to be most relevant. This calculation is hidden in the dark and impossible for a regular end user to know about and even less to understand.

If you check the documentation there are a number of built in ranking models, and each ranking model has it's own set of rules that in the end gives each search result a ranking score. The higher the ranking score an item gets, the higher up in the search result it gets. I will not go into detail about the ranking but you can have a look here for more info.

The main issue here is that the users doesn't know by what dimension the results are sorted and also - even if they did, as a regular user you can't see why person X is ranked higher than person Y. So this is a clear source of confusion.

So what options are there?

How hard can it be? Just sort by first name and be done with it!

Let's sort by first name descending! That's simple enough - right?

Wrong - sorry.

Remember that when you do a search the Search Engine doesn't know if your search term is a first name, last name, department, some other searchable property or a combination of these. Sure, you can do some magic using query rules but still those are kind of limited in their abilities.

So let's say that you are searching for "Eric" and there are a lot, let's say over 50 users (this is not uncommon when the company has a size of medium/large) with the first name "Eric", however in this case you are searching for "Josef Erich".

If we were sorting by first name this would mean that you would have to click through something like 5 pages to get to your "Josef Erich" result. Not good, not good at all.

Basically - you can't just assume that one static sorting is a good option in all scenarios.

Ok, let's enable sorting choices!

So what is the simple solution? The simple solution is to enable the sorting dropdown so that the end user can select the sorting by them selves.

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To get this dropdown you edit the search result web part and activate a checkbox and update a json string. Remember that the properties you use needs to be configured to be sortable.
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Enabling this dropdown gives you the following effects:

a) The user understands that there is a sorting going on by default (relevance), it's not just random as it might seem.

b) It empowers the users - they can control the sorting according to their current search context needs.

Great - we are all good to go! Or are we really?

Think twice!

Hold up. Stop and think for a minute. We just established that the end users want's to be able to sort people - RIGHT?

Sorry - wrong again!

They don't want to be able to sort by name or relevance. THEY. DON'T. CARE. What they really want is to be able to find a specific person. Not to sort. Actually they don't want to search at all. They wan't to talk to a person or maybe read about them. They want to act and do their job - not search nor sort.

In a really good search solution you would not need sorting because there should not be more than one or a few results after typing your query. Well how do we do that? We have this big bulk of "Erics"....

Well with the out of the box functionality in SharePoint - it's not much you can do except maybe create some cool query rules that support some specific scenarios and also provide instructions on how to write more specific search queries. However, if we are honest - regular users will never learn that type of stuff and they shouldn't have to.

So what are your options?

a) Go the simple route with the sorting dropdown (works ok but feels like 2003 UI). If nothing else - it's better than the default configuration.

b) Customize the Search interface to provide interactive help to the users that helps them write the queries they need without knowing how, enabling them to do more specific searches. What you can do is you provide the user with interactive help that enables them to write queries like "Manager in Gothenburg" or "Nora from Sales Department".

c) It also helps if you add relevant refiners, this makes it easier to filter and thereby making the number of results less. Be aware that users tend not to see / use the refiners so you might consider other "more in your face" ui customizations to help the users.

Whatever you do - don't leave you SharePoint Search as is and expect users to like it.

If you need more information on SharePoint Search and how to make use of Search in your organisation - feel free to contact us.