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Troubleshoot 5 common SharePoint search problems

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I bet you didn't know that SharePoint is used by over 200 million people worldwide, which gives its search engine a similar size to Google's US business. Given this size, it's surprising how many people have a love-hate relationship with the SharePoint Online search.

In this article I explore how administrators can troubleshoot common issues with the search in SharePoint for Microsoft 365. Then we will also look at ways you can improve the overall experience for the user.

This article is both for admins that just migrated to SharePoint Online from SharePoint 2016, and those that already have experience but want to troubleshoot issues.

Problem 1: Missing results

It's common that users are unable to find specific documents that they know have been added to SharePoint. Even if you don't have an active report of a user, it's a good idea to know typical reasons so you could proactively keep an eye out for them.

Troubleshoot issue 1: Search is disabled

SharePoint site settings link

Some types of SharePoint sites have a Site settings menu accessible from the settings icon.

Newer style Communication or Team sites don't have this menu anymore.

In there is a setting named Search and Offline Availability where the site content could be accidentally excluded from search results. If you find the radio button to be on No just flip it over to Yes, and then click Reindex site.

SharePoint site settings for Search and Offline Availability

If you go to the Documents page within your SharePoint site there is another indexing switch that may be inadvertently disabled. Click on the Documents page and then on the settings icon again. Select Library settings, followed by Advanced settings.

SharePoint site settings menu

On that page make sure that Allow items from this document library to appear in search results? is set to Yes. If you have some advanced filter views, these might actually hide some documents from users, so you might want to set Index Non-Default Views to Yes, too. After that click Reindex Document Library to make your changes become effective in the search index.

SharePoint search index settings

Troubleshoot issue 2: Inconsistent results

There are a number of users who cannot find a document despite using the exact title as their search query. If documents are found inconsistently between users, you might have a permissions problem. First of all check that the user in question is actually a member of the site.

SharePoint site group membership

Now, even if your users are correctly labelled to be a Member, the Member role might have incorrect permission to some of your folders. So go to Documents and select an affected folder. Now click on the little i icon to reveal the folder details and click on Manage access.

Managing SharePoint folder permissions for user access

On the next page make sure your Member role has at least Can view permission. If it doesn't click on Advanced and add that role back in.

Configuring user access permissions to a folder in a SharePoint site

Troubleshoot issue 3: One particular document isn't being found

If you just can't find a specific, single document in SharePoint, and no one else can find it either, then it could need checking in or approving. Does the document show a little red arrow icon next to the title in SharePoint?

Example of a document which is checked out in a SharePoint intranet

If it does, that means it has been Checked out which means an editor wanted to reserve this document as they are currently changing it and want to avoid accidental conflicts, in case someone else tried to change the document in the meantime.

If you know it's safe to check the document back in, click the 3-dots menu 3-dots menu icon and select More → Check in or Discard check out.

Checking a document in on SharePoint

Although retired for new SharePoints, you might still have a pending workflow attached to a document. This mean it hasn't been approved for public users to view it, and hence isn't in the search index.

To check whether any documents are pending approval, go to the settings icon Settings icon and then navigate to Library settings → Workflow Settings. If you have any pending workflows they would show under Workflows in progress.

Example of a Workflow Settings page in SharePoint

More troubleshooting

These are all the typical reasons why documents might seemingly inexplicably miss in SharePoint Online search results. Remember, if you have SharePoint 2016 or other on-premises versions this won't cover all the common reasons.

If you weren't able to resolve your issue with the above steps then, as a paying Microsoft customer, this might be a good point in time to open a case with Microsoft.

Problem 2: Bad user experience

For most of its life SharePoint has been plagued by an inconsistent search UI, that confused users more than it helped them. This has gotten to a point where Microsoft has thrown in the towel and made an all-new search for SharePoint online. This is a lot easier to use, at the expense of being entirely bereft of any meaningful ways to refine your results.

Default SharePoint search with file type and last modified search filters

All you get is File type and Last modified as your search filters

For small organizations this may be enough, but larger organizations are left wanting for more. Microsoft knows that search needs are too different between large organizations, due to differences in information architecture.

So are large organizations left out in the cold? No, Microsoft instead has backed an open-source SharePoint search add-on named PnP Modern Search. This is a pretty straightforward add-on to install and it opens up a plethora of flexible options to enhance the search experience.

Basically to set this up, you will create a dedicated Search results page in SharePoint using the built-in Webparts of this add-on. You can leave the standard SharePoint search bar untouched, and instead set it to re-route users to your new, dedicated search page.

This is done in the SharePoint admin center by navigating to More features → Search → Search Center Settings and then changing the URL to your new page.

Setting a custom URL for a SharePoint search page on the Search Settings page

Here are the most popular modifications admins make with Modern Search:

Solution 1: Enable more search filters

The lack of these in standard SharePoint search obviously makes Modern Search so appealing. After installing the dedicated Search filters Webpart you can add two types of tag or date range pickers to your searches which you can point against most data sources.

Creating new search filters for SharePoint to extend the existing search, including tags and created date filters

Additional SharePoint search filters provided by Modern Search

Solution 2: Custom search suggestions

Example of custom search suggestions showing in SharePoint search results from other data sources

SharePoint's search has its own suggestions but it isn't configurable. If you have dedicated applications or 3rd party webparts in SharePoint, they don't typically get crawled for suggestions.

But Modern Search addresses this by letting you configure custom suggestion providers that you can point against any data source.

Solution 3: Highly specific searches

Aside from replacing your global SharePoint search, PnP Modern Search also lets you make dedicated searches for specific verticals in your organization. For example, say you're a law firm and you want a specific case law search that uses many more filters and metadata compared to the more general, global search.

Example of creating custom search filters based on a result source in SharePoint

While you can create your own search verticals in SharePoint online, these won't work in conjunction with the customizable sources or filters from Modern Search. Say in our example, we wanted to have filters that let you choose between cases from District or Supreme Courts. By using Modern Searches built-in Search Verticals Webpart, you can freely design your new search tab to both narrow the results and let users make further refinements.

Problem 3: Google-style results

Digital Assistant features bring a Google-like experience to a SharePoint intranet, including suggestions and featured snippets

The holy grail: Modern SharePoint search that feels "just like Google"

Ask anyone in this industry what users want, and the answer always is "I just want it to work like Google". What many users mean by that is, they want:

  • suggestions as they type

  • search to understand complete sentences

  • results that "jump" at you, presented in Card-like snippets (which Google does so well)

  • works on mobile devices as well as on desktops

Okay... Surely, if something, that makes SharePoint search this awesome, existed you'd have heard of it already, right?

🚨 Shameless product pitch ahead: I'm going to pitch my own product right now. We're genuine SharePoint enthusiasts, but if you don't like to be pitched to, don't read on. ✌️

What would you say if such a Google-esque product actually exists? Would you jump up and throw all your money at it?

Source: Giphy

Here's the thing: I've got good news and bad news. The good news is, such a product actually does exist. But the bad news is, it's 🤑 free! You can keep your wallet where it is. 😉

Our product is called Digital Assistant, and – in a nutshell – it's a Card-based chatbot and dashboard that projects data from all your existing business apps into a single pane of glass. It makes it easier to find results using full sentences, as well as receive notifications the instant updates are detected.

As well as having its own webapp, you can deploy these Cards to other Channels such as SharePoint search, MS Teams, and many others. If you enable both these Channels, your users will be able to get intelligent answers using data from any of the connected apps.

In SharePoint you will gain the ability to embed Cards from 3rd party apps as Webparts, NLP-supported search with Card results, as well as a dedicated page to show all of a user's pinned Cards.

Real-life examples of Digital Assistant embedded into a SharePoint intranet to add or enhance functionality

SharePoint's Digital Workplace potential enhanced with an AI-powered smart assistant

The companion Teams app will further provide users with an AI chatbot they can ask to retrieve any Card for, or directly answers their questions. Users also receive instant notifications about updates from their connected apps. And finally, the Board of pinned Cards is also available here.

Digital Assistant app in Microsoft Teams showing a board, notifications and Assistant Card responses

An AI chatbot and smart assistant app to turn MS Teams into a Digital Workplace

If this sounds like your thing, you can create your free Digital Assistant, or browse the App Directory listings for SharePoint or the MS Teams app.

~ Pitch over, thank you for listening ~

Problem 4: Get results from other apps

Microsoft's Bing team announced a dedicated search product in 2019, called Microsoft Search. It encompasses SharePoint, Outlook and OneDrive for Business which makes it superior to SharePoint's own search (and really a competitor to it). Both are available in SharePoint online, but there is no official statement where the journey will go in the future.

For now, there is already one good thing that's come out of this Microsoft Search – connecting outside cloud apps to your SharePoint search using Microsoft Graph Connectors. Basically that's a push service where other applications can add their own records to the search index in SharePoint.

And there's quite an illustrious number of services to choose from: Salesforce, Alfresco, Atlassian, GoogleDrive, IBM Connections, SAP, Slack, just to name a few...

To set up a Connector go to the Admin center → Settings → Search & intelligence → Connectors → Add.

SharePoint admin center showing options to connect SharePoint search to external data sources

At the time of writing (February '21) there weren't that many services to choose from yet, but nevertheless you may be interested to keep an eye on this.

Problem 5: Mising results from other Microsoft products

We talked about it before but depending on where a user begins their search, results may differ widely. For instance, SharePoint doesn't search in Teams, while Teams searches in your OneDrive but not in it's own Teams apps. It's a bit of a kerfuffle... 🤔

But as you read above, with Microsoft Search they promised to address this exact problem. That was 2019, it's now *checks* 2021. Where 👏 are 👏 the 👏 results?

I'll let you in on a little secret: You can use Microsoft's super-duper all-encompassing search today. It's been available for months, actually.

Example of search results from other applications like Microsoft Teams showing in Microsoft Search

Remember how I said above that Microsoft Search is made by the Bing team? That's exactly right, head over to Bing right now and you should see a Work tab that shows you all your files, SharePoint sites, Teams messages, colleagues, etc. in one view.

Sign in button for Microsoft Search on Bing

Sign in with work or school to reveal Bing's Work tab

Just make sure you're logged in with your work or school account. If you haven't tried it yet, definitely check it out. Although a little unconventional, Bing's Work tab is certainly something that could come in handy for you or your users. At least until Microsoft has decided how to port this experience over into the real SharePoint.


I hope this blogpost was able to fix your most common SharePoint issues, as well as address some long-standing quirks of SharePoint. Did I miss anything? Is there a trick to improving SharePoint search you'd like to share? Leave your comments below. 👇

Author portrait

Article by Henry Amm

I’m the Senior Director for the Digital Assistant Platform. Prevously gained 6 years of experience as an Intranet consultant. Fluent in German.

Make your Assistant Build your free AI-powered Digital Workplace platform in minutes, with our free forever plan. Digital Assistant logo Yes please
Author portrait

Article by: Henry Amm

I’m the Senior Director for the Digital Assistant Platform. Prevously gained 6 years of experience as an Intranet consultant. Fluent in German.

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