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Imagine you’re an employee who just got back from a business trip and needs to submit a reimbursement request for your trip expenses. You enter keywords “expense reimbursement form” to search your company’s intranet, and the site crawler pulls up multiple versions of the form. 

You scan the list and select what appears to be the most current one based on the date in the description. You download it. You open it and spend 20 minutes filling it out with your meal details, then email it to the department manager.

The next day, you get a return email admonishing you for using an outdated reimbursement request form, with a link to where the (renamed) updated version had apparently been hiding on the intranet.

Hmm. Is it Friday yet?

These types of information-retrieval snafus are to be expected when a company’s intranet is not well maintained. Intranets are simply not well-oiled machines like the Web; they often leave much to be desired in terms of how easy it is to find information, and, as a result, there’s a negative impact on employee efficiency and productivity (not to mention moods and attitudes) in the digital workplace.

What’s an intranet?

First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page in terms of the nature and definition of an intranet site. Conventional wisdom says an intranet is:

  • A corporate enterprise’s private internal network 
  • A system that indexes and stores documents, conversations, marketing reports, press releases, engineering specs, and other data from all applicable sources 
  • A platform that lets management easily communicate with employees (and maybe sales reps and contractors as well)
  • Possibly a smaller- or limited-scale rendition of an enterprise (intranet search is a specialized application of enterprise search) 
  • A system that lets employees (including those working remotely) easily locate each other and happily work together
  • The internal “face” of the company, whose home page employees see when they log in to start work

Intranets were spawned along with the World Wide Web (the Internet) in the 1990s. However, they were and still are considerably different from the Internet, as well as from extranets and enterprise search systems. Some differentiators:

  • An extranet sounds like the polar opposite of an intranet; it’s actually similar at the core but also provides permission-controlled access to authorized outsiders around the corporate periphery, such as customers, vendors, and partners
  • An enterprise “net” is a typically larger, more comprehensive, yet still internal corporate network. Enterprise systems may consist of and be integrated with various company tools and entities, such as software platforms and search engines
  •  And of course the Internet is the public Web, searchable by engines like Google, which almost always turns up a huge and overwhelming array of content to explore

Fire hydrant vs. old garden hose

“Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant,” said app developer and entrepreneur Mitch Kapor.

That’s not the case with most intranets. Not even close. In Kapor’s context, the average intranet might be akin to turning on an old, kinked-up garden hose and eventually getting a trickle of water. We can assume that no modern intranet will approach the Internet in information overload or usability. Especially if it hasn’t been populated with the right information in a consistent way or maintained and kept up to date.

Still, if you can look past this unfortunate fact and consider the advantages, disadvantages, and special needs of intranets in a corporate context, you’d probably agree that an intranet has some distinctly redeeming qualities.

Rewards of a company intranet

When it comes to the well-meaning concept of corporate camaraderie, what’s not to love about an intranet? 

In terms of functionality, an intranet can wear many “hats,” such as: 

  • Provider of information in one central repository. Announcements, press releases, onboarding videos. Instead of a company having various siloed systems (e.g., HR and IT) accessible through different websites, log-ins, and passwords, an intranet keeps everything under one corporate software roof, accessible from one search interface. 
  • Organizer of various types of information. Every piece of content created at the company (along with messaging between employees about it, meeting notes, and more) can be housed in an intuitively structured, findable way. All corporate systems and available items can be represented in alphabetically ordered menus. Ideally, information can be located through search, menus, and links (both within documents and in the system architecture). 
  • Facilitator of content management. Intranet software is handy for setting up a formal corporate content management system (CMS) that oversees everything from the creation of material to its being published and widely distributed. Modern-day CMSes may house not only documents but items such as blog posts and help-desk FAQs. A good intranet lets people create, edit, access, streamline, talk about, and share any of its content in real time.
  • Protector of corporate data by allowing appropriate and multilevel access to intranet content, either seamlessly on the back end or through requiring passwords.
  • Facilitator of employee engagement. By providing employee directories, email addresses, and a messaging app, for instance, a company can ensure that its intranet users are able to reach out to one another and easily form connections and collaborate on projects.
  • Improver of employee efficiency. It’s a simple fact that when people can find content they need in a timely way, they waste less time and can move on to completing productive work.
  • Enhancer of the corporate culture. A user-friendly, functional intranet is a proven way to make people and teams think of themselves as a cohesive and meaningful workspace group, as well as feel good about working for the company.

Job #1: saving time

The most substantive reward of a well-functioning intranet is arguably saving employees’ time, which leads to higher efficiency and thereby better productivity. 

Workers who rely on information to do their jobs have been found to squander significant amounts of time due to not having the right facts and figures in front of them. According to IDC, “Data professionals are spending more of their time governing, searching and preparing data than they are on extracting value.”

The cost of all of this time wasting adds up: IDC adds that companies forfeit almost $2.5 million per year because employees simply can’t get their hands on the information they critically need.

Of course, maintaining an intranet — keeping its content up to date, making sure all the links still work, keeping employees from losing interest in using it — also takes plenty of time and focused energy. And to be fair, any company considering setting up an intranet platform from scratch should be aware of a few additional facts and figures related to such an undertaking.

Challenges of intranet life

What are the low points and potential pitfalls of having an intranet?

We’ve touched on the most commonly cited one: employees, who are used to awe-inspiring Google search experiences and equally pleasant excursions on ecommerce sites, have super-inflated high expectations for finding information on their companies’ intranets. And by those standards, intranets can’t help but disappoint.

Intranets also operate differently than the Internet in order to meet companies’ varying internal needs and requirements. According to KMWorld, “Unlike Web search, enterprise search makes different demands on an information access platform: for better accuracy; security; more formats; more reporting tools; more language understanding; and better interaction design.”

So for a number of reasons, the right information can be difficult to track down on an intranet, either in a timely fashion or at all. 

According to McKinsey and Company, “Employees spend 1.8 hours every day – 9.2 hours per week, on average – searching and gathering information.” 

Intranet challenges can be a major factor in that wheel spinning. Typical complaints include:

  • There are too many documents. Huge amounts of information (some of it likely out of date) lumped in the system often means having to sift through layers of irrelevant material.
  • Documents can’t be easily found because they haven’t been created and tagged in a consistent way (for instance, by including metadata such as the author’s name).
  • There are incompatible types of content and information systems. What’s available in a particular corporate mix doesn’t always play well together, or is outright antagonistic, which can translate into stuckness and more wasted time.
  • Content is out of date. This may be because nobody is administering regular editorial care and feeding, which means greater effort must be expended to track down what’s current. 
  • Systems are out of date. An intranet needs editors, designers, and point people (e.g., department managers) to keep IT on track in making any needed system updates.
  • Documents aren’t cross-referenced using links, so related information may be easily overlooked.
  • Search-located content is disorganized and not provided in a way that’s relevant to the searcher.
  • The search feature takes a lot of time. More coffee, anyone?
  • Search results aren’t tailored for people’s roles or the information they should be able to access. For instance, if a salesperson is looking for marketing material, their first search results page should not start with R&D documents.
  • Employees aren’t natural search experts. According to the Journal of Information Science, “62% of dissatisfaction events [with enterprise search are] due to human (information and search literacy) rather than technology factors.” 

For any or all of these reasons, employees can get disillusioned by the user experience on their company intranet, with the result being that they naturally use it less often or simply abandon it altogether.

Part of the solution: great intranet search

But wait…all hope is not lost. A company can significantly increase its workplace efficiency by providing modern, AI-driven, personalized search for helping employees find what they need on the intranet.

One option is the open-source route (think Microsoft SharePoint, Apache Solr, Elasticsearch). This works perfectly for some companies, while others prefer a complete intranet search solution that can handle both operations and search management, plus conceivably require less tinkering down the road.

If a company already has an intranet, the search function may technically work but be unimpressive, for example, by providing search results that aren’t organized by relevance, or with less-relevant items clogging up the primary results page. Another suboptimal scenario: entering a search term doesn’t turn up everything that could potentially be useful to the employee.

According to the Journal of Information Science, companies that emphasize “‘systems thinking’ and bimodal approaches towards search strategy and information behavior may improve capabilities.”

In other words, when intranet search functionality comes first, significant amounts of time can be saved, and the overall way employees feel about the intranet (not to mention the company) can be wildly improved. 

What’s an “intranet search engine”?

You may be wondering how, exactly, an intranet search engine is different from other types of search engines. That’s a good question. And it has a straightforward answer: intranet search is simply enterprise search applied in a way that’s geared toward helping employees painlessly find the internal company information they need, when they need it.

What makes an A-rated intranet search engine?

In a nutshell, an intranet with fast, relevant search can do two impressive things in a work environment:

  • Index various types of data from multiple corporate sources
  • Make information easily available to employees in a single, central place

With those two major bases covered, an intranet search engine is off to a fabulous start. Ideally, an intranet search engine also:

  • Has an intuitive, approachable search interface. If employees must sit through online training to learn how to search their intranet, it’s too complicated. Need inspiration? Check out the search experience on popular ecommerce sites. Job 1: make the search bar prominent, as that’s likely to be employees’ first stop. 
  • Does complete, comprehensive indexing: aggregates and presents relevant results in a consistently organized way, regardless of the company’s particular back-end systems.
  • Connects back-office systems to content management systems (CMSes) for a seamless experience. Search can also be added to ERP software or a CRM system.
  • Uses federated search, the simultaneous combing of multiple types of data sources. This lets employees pull up not just “fluffy” content like executives’ news briefs but detailed product information such as what could be hidden away in cloud-based apps like Google Sheets or Salesforce. 
  • Is fast, enabling employees to instantly pull up critical information by entering a specific search term and pressing Enter. 
  • Is customizable. Each employer may need slightly different intranet features and functionality. You can flexibly integrate custom internal site search to create a winning employee experience.
  • Is adaptable in search-term interpretation; for instance, it factors in natural-language characteristics and partial word matching. 
  • Uses matching: is on the lookout for user errors like typos and alternative phrasing in order to reliably provide all applicable search results. 
  • Uses ranking by adding a company’s business-specific rules; then the most relevant  matches are placed at the top of employees’ search results. For example, if there’s an important event HR wants to remind everyone to attend before they check out the related content, you can “promote” that item to the top of the results.
  • Uses AI-driven personalization to customize employees’ search experiences. For example, you can adjust searches to best address the needs of a particular department, such as Engineering. According to a survey of tech leaders by Firstup and Pulse, 44% consider intranet personalization a “nice to have.” And when search results are tailored to workers’ expectations using AI, there’s no doubt that it can improve employee satisfaction.
  • Collects search analytics so you can find out what employees are most interested in locating on the intranet and what they think is valuable info, then make informed decisions about how to improve the search experience and tweak search functionality as needed. You can also look at dead-end searches, which could, for example, result in a particular team creating content that employees are trying but failing to find.

The results of great intranet search results

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably now convinced that top-notch intranet search can bring a company a ton of operational benefits, which can subsequently layer nicely on one another to  fuel a positive corporate vibe.

To sum up, an excellent enterprise search tool is the backbone of a thriving corporate intranet. With an optimally searchable intranet, your company can usher in:

  • Better efficiency and productivity. Easy intranet searching means quick project completion and happy employees. 
  • Less overlapping content. Well organized information lets employees enter a single search query and find their target information fast.
  • Less material, more relevance. Unlike the fountainous fire hydrant that is the Internet, an optimized intranet helps employees zero in on exactly what they need and find useful.
  • Supported back-office systems. An effective internal search engine can bring together and index disparate information such as CRMs, employees’ corporate objectives, and chat, unifying it as the friendly internal face of the company. 
  • Better project management. A great intranet search engine can help employees lay their hands on key specs and detailed information, plus find and connect with the right colleagues.
  • Improved employee engagement and retention. A highly usable intranet can translate to more people feeling connected to their colleagues and empowered by their experiences, with fewer of them feeling the need to search for a new job. 

Create an inspirational intranet

With a flexible search API, Algolia offers instantaneous, relevant intranet search that can translate into higher employee productivity and all that other good stuff above.

Our complete, quick-to-implement solution doesn’t require much technical expertise, and it’s fully configurable and customizable based on your company’s needs and preferences for your intranet. We also make our intranet rollouts affordable by offering tiered, pay-as-you-go pricing. 

What’s your intranet waiting for? Fill in this short form and let’s get you started.

For more information: Enterprise search solutions, for customers and the workplace

About the author
Catherine Dee

Search and Discovery writer

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