What is document indexing?

Are you able to easily find the information you need in order to do your job? Can you quickly access the right digital files without wasting too much time going down rat holes?

As businesses continue to digitize and the paperless office becomes a thing of the ancient past, it’s become increasingly important to master the art of knowledge and document management. Document indexing is what makes it all possible: the cog that powers information search and document retrieval in the digital world.

What is document indexing?

Document indexing is simply the process of applying labels and tags to documents so that they can easily be found when searching high-volume databases and indexes. Indexing is the search-engine equivalent of putting a colorful ribbon on your luggage, making it easier to spot your bag that looks like everyone else’s when you land. By tagging documents with relevant markers, you make it easier to find them again fast.

The point of this post

Do you know why the index finger was given its name?

The word index is derived from the Latin word indico, meaning to point out, indicate, or show. People use their index fingers to point at things.

Children can understand and perform pointing gestures at 9–12 months. And from that point on — pun intended — “indexing” is a simple but effective means of search and retrieval. For instance:

“Where are my sunglasses?”

“They are there. On your head.”

A brief history of document indexing

People reportedly started to index documents in the 15th century, following the advent of the printing press, as a mechanism for digging up information that was buried in hefty tomes.

Today, in the digital age, business users rely on document management systems such as SharePoint, Google Drive, and Adobe Document Cloud for document storage. Unfortunately, our index fingers can’t help us locate business knowledge that’s stored in the Cloud. But document indexing is still the framework and mechanism that helps business users locate or delightedly discover the right information. That’s crucial: in a highly competitive business landscape, the timely, accurate retrieval of indexed information matters.

Why is it important to (correctly) index documents?

When it comes to companies, being able to locate documents fast is especially critical. Not only does speedy search functionality make day-to-day work less tedious, it’s a business-process differentiator. It boosts productivity, enables better collaboration, and helps reduce costs. It‘s also central to a wide range of domains, such as governance, security, and compliance. 

More than that, with any type of document, excellent search has become a necessity. As businesses have started moving on from paper-based processes such as document scanning and embraced automation, modern search mechanics have become a must. That realization became all too clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many businesses had to rush all sorts of paper-based processes and systems online in order to simply stay afloat. 

So regardless of the document type, this new digital normal is here to stay. When you’re working from home, you certainly can’t access physical documents stuffed in manila file folders in the back of file cabinets. Plus, even if you’re in the office, it can be a time-consuming challenge to access on-premises digital file storage when indexing has been done sloppily or not at all.

Good things come to those who index

Document indexing makes sure that in the digital world, regardless of where you physically sit (or stand), you can lay your virtual hands on the info you need without too much effort. And in doing that, you and your company stand to benefit from these business-transforming perks:

  • Saving time. Indexed files are found faster, so you save the time you would have had to spend tediously searching through files in order to put your (index) finger on the right item.
  • Saving money. Using a streamlined document indexing system can reduce your storage spend and help you get better ROI on employee time.
  • Improved collaboration. Files that are easy to find are that much easier to share, too. And easy sharing lets employees do what they need to do work while expending less effort.
  • Better security and compliance. Indexing arranges files more logically, with everything in the right place, which lets compliance and security audits run smoothly when needed.

How document indexing works

Whether it’s your sunglasses or a necessary document, to find something quickly, you first need to know where to look. With glasses, you would begin by looking in the “obvious places.” Are they in the car? On the counter with your keys? In the fridge where you put them last time? Document indexing is the digital equivalent of this problem-solving process. 

One simple definition of an index is the place where data used by a search engine is stored. 

Think back to your high-school math textbook. There was probably an index in the back, where you could browse for topics, equations, names, along with the page numbers where these items were discussed.

A document index is kind of similar.

When a document is digitized, saved, or stored, it’s assigned tags, which can then later be located in searches. To index documents, you tag them to highlight key attributes. For work purposes, we’re talking about tags like the date, employee name, customer name, vendor name, customer reference number, project name, client, barcode, account name, account number.

So then, instead of having a search engine become overworked by having to comb through every word in every available document, which could get tedious with things like medical records, human resources files, or gargantuan collections of digital images, you’re pointed only to files and folders for which your tags match. 

Essentially, document indexing narrows a search, ensuring that the key terms are prioritized. So instead of the search engine digging endlessly through gigabytes of files and folders, you’re presented with perhaps two or three documents based on their relevance to the terms in your search.

Three document-indexing methods  

Did you know there are three slightly different types of indexing? Here are the details:

Full-text indexing

As the name indicates, a full-text-indexing process involves scanning every single word in a document, from the file name on down to the footnotes. A full-text index requires searching streams of unstructured data. Then, if your full-text search terms appear exactly, word for word, in a document, your search results will point you to that document. 

The problem with this comprehensive approach is twofold. First, if your company is a large enterprise, hundreds of thousands of documents may need to be dutifully searched. Second, unless your entered search terms are incredibly specific, you’ll be presented with search results that aren’t particularly relevant.

Metadata indexing

Fortunately not all searches need to be full text. Some documents are indexed by metadata: Metadata information about documents, as opposed to terms found in them.

Unlike full-text indexing, in metadata indexing, only the tags assigned to a document are noted. So then instead of searching every word of documents, folders, and systems, only the metadata is searched. This level of search is commonly used to shorten search times and improve workflow in the business world.

Field-data indexing

Like the metadata approach, field-based data indexing narrows searching to speed up efficiency. Instead of applying metadata tags to scanned documents, for instance, this type of search covers predefined fields, such as “order number,” “invoice number,” and “customer number.” Fields are more rigid than metadata tags, so any search will be even more acutely pinpointed.

Algolia can help

How you approach document indexing in the digital world (as well as indexing with paper documents, undoubtedly) can mean the difference between mediocre business results and fabulous success. Indexing may sound relatively inconsequential, but optimizing how users find digital documents and other data assets in your file-system storage space can significantly lead to better efficiency and employee productivity. In short, good document indexing directly impacts how smoothly and reliably your business operates. 

If you’re ready to start benefiting from building a world-class search experience for your employees and customers, check out Algolia’s enterprise search, which lets you index your documents for easy retrieval. To learn more about our document-indexing solutions and how to optimize with high-quality index data and search, get in touch today.

About the authorCatherine Dee

Catherine Dee

Search and Discovery writer

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