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Troubleshoot 5 common SharePoint search problems (Updated Dec '22)

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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.

The newer 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

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

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

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 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 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's search has been a mixed bag in terms of its UI. 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 almost entirely bereft of meaningful ways to refine 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 search needs vary widely between their small and enterprise tenants. So what are larger organizations supposed to do?

Microsoft launched an open-source SharePoint search add-on named PnP Modern Search. This is a pretty straightforward add-in that gives you new, and more flexible, web parts for making a better search page yourself.

Dedicated web parts all beginning with "PnP" that you can use to make a customized search page. Note the red arrow pointing to "Answer Card" which will be explained a little further down.

Basically you would create your own search page with these built-in web parts. And then you reroute the standard SharePoint search bar at the top, to direct users to this new, dedicated page for their results.

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

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 adding the Search filters web part you can add two types of tag or date-range pickers to your searches which will then filter the displayed results.

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 suggestions but they aren't configurable. If you have dedicated applications or 3rd party web parts 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 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 web part, you can freely design your new search tab to both narrow the results and let users make further refinements.

Problem 3: Boring results

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

Who says SharePoint search can't "feel 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:

  1. suggestions as they type

  2. search to understand complete sentences

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

  4. works on mobile devices as well as on desktops

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

Well, buckle up and stow your tray table cause... such a product actually exists. And it's free.

There is an add-on to Modern Search (basically an add-on for an add-on 🤯) called Answer Cards that hooks straight into your PnP search web parts. This one will give you results also, but they're in the shape on an Adaptive Card. That's a standard created by Microsoft and it's pretty easy to pick up, even for non-developers.

After you got the web part from App Source (no manual install necessary for this one), you basically click either the Add new Answer Card or Add more QnA knowledge to bring up an Adaptive Card designer where you can create your Card.

There are some fancy templates you could use as a starting point. Once you've made one, you can search for it in the web part by title, or training phrases that can be added in the designer.

Initially, the web part displays a search bar, but by clicking on the Use with PnP Modern Search toggle you can switch it into a mode that would make it receive its inputs from PnP - Search Box. If you sandwich this web part in-between your other PnP web parts you can easily create your own Google-esque SharePoint search.

Problem 4: Get results from other apps

One of the most obvious improvements you can make to a SharePoint search is widen its horizons to include more sources. Since 2019, SharePoint's search is based on Microsoft Search (made by the Bing team no less) which means it now encompasses SharePoint, Outlook and OneDrive for Business out of the box. The previous SharePoint search didn't even include these. But there are options to bring in even more data sources that you should consider:

Idea #1: Take advantage of Microsoft Search

This new Microsoft Search allows you to connect 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 '22) there weren't that many services to choose from yet, but nevertheless you may be interested to keep an eye on this.

Modern Search can also be extended to include your own data sources. As their docs detail, this would entail creating the data source logic first, and then registering it for discovery. Even though there are no built-in data sources you can start off with, at least they offer you the option to add a "search suggestion provider" that draws from the same data, which is neat.

Idea #3: Use the Answer Cards designer again

The Adaptive Card designer from the Answer Cards web part, whether it's running with PnP or not, can actually combine the Card's layout with live data it pulls from an API. And that is kind of a secret weapon, as there are literally dozens of baked in apps listed in the directory already, including ServiceNow, Salesforce, Zendesk, Jira, and many others.

Connect to data source button lets you pull in live data from a plethora of APIs

Problem 5: Missing results from other Microsoft products

This should have perhaps been listed before problem #4. SharePoint's search actually has a huge coverage gap when it comes to 1st party, Microsoft-owned data. There is a longer read, but in a nutshell, SharePoint doesn't search in Teams, Teams searches in your OneDrive but it can't search apps within Teams. It's really a fundamental problem.

This is perplexing to me because with Microsoft Search they promised to address this exact problem. That was 2019, it's now *checks* 2023. 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. 👇

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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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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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