Monday, August 27, 2007

Why you need your very own Areas at Sharepoint Portal Server 2003.

Why you need your very own Areas at Sharepoint Portal Server 2003.
How to understand this functionality

The search engine, on Sharepoint, makes use of innovative algorithms and dazzling mathematics. But judging whether these results are any good or not is completely in the eye of the beholder. It's subjective.

The Search engine sometimes don't provide valuable results. This is can often be because when you know little about what you're looking for, you have little idea as to what to search for. For example, someone interested in learning about crabs may never have heard of the term crustacean (or know how to spell it).

It's often easy to forget that better maths, artificial intelligence, natural language processing, fuzzy logic, and neural nets, may never work out that "Bubble & Squeak" has nothing to do with bubbles or squeaking. But people can make these connections and structures easily. One way to help your search engine to locate "better" matches is to add a little common-sense humanity and create Areas.

Areas are simply a classification or an organization of related keywords or concepts. A better search engine is essential in a world where more and more people now understand what "information overload" and "being lost in hyperspace" feels like.

The challenge

Making Areas is an act of communication. They basically capture an essence of the knowledge that resides in your organization. A conceptual short-hand overview that describes what's important and how things you are interested in relate to each other. Creating Areas, like anything that worthwhile can be hard work, time-consuming and require considerable domain expertise and creativity.

Imagine a "Creatures of the World" site. It may have an areas structure like this...


Warm blooded
- Mammals
- Birds
Cold blooded
- Fish
- Reptiles
Crustaceans (Crabs, Lobsters, barnacles, etc)[li]Insects

Already you may be thinking, I wouldn't have organized the Creatures like that, my users need to access them like this...


- Barrier Reef
North Pole

Now imagine looking for information of the Red Rock Crab (Plagusia chabrus)

In the first example, I might not know what a Arthropoda was (I didn't when I started this article). In the second example, would a crab be in the Land or Seas section.

Making Areas for your company can be very political. The way information is organized helps define the information. Both the examples above don't mention the rarity of the animals, something I would want to make a primary node if I wanted to raise environmental issues.

Often we don't question Areas structure when we see them. Many off-licences I visit have wines arranged by price (with the expensive wines normally higher than the cheap plonk) or by region (France, Spain, The Americas etc). But one online company, has chosen to arrange their wine by taste, with categories of "fizzy", "fresh", "juicy", "big" and sweet. I'm not a wine buff, but using this Areas structure, I know that I'd probably like anything between "juicy" and "smooth" wines and I'd be more prepared to be adventurous within this category than a category like "Australia" or even a price range. It took the people at Best Cellars time and effort to categorize the wines on offer, but doing so has made me more likely to find what I want and (incidentally) spend money!

Facetted classification to the rescue

One of the problems with Areas and classification is that the world and the things in it, tend not to like a hierarchical arrangement of folders. In the past, many classification systems were too exclusive and restrictive, becoming hugely complex, cumbersome and political. A facetted classification system is a more fluid approach to creating areas structure.

Facets allow for a more complex structure, where the categories are applied to the information like keywords. For example, the "Red Rock Crab" would be able to be found in numerous ways, for example...

Red Rock Crab

Animals / Invertebrates / Crustaceans /
World / Seas / Pacific
World / Land / Australasia
A new search engine, Teoma, reveals these categories (or facets) in a way I find very helpful. Contrast the way these search results work.

"Red Rock Crab" at Teoma

"Red Rock Crab" at Google

Small steps
Making Areas is a collaborative and iterative process. You shouldn't expect get it right first time. This means that working with the areas structure needs to be readily available to all involved and stunningly easy to use, otherwise it will stagnate and not be used. It needs to evolve so that you can imagine your intranet making sentient suggestions, "people who made use of these corporate logos also read these branding guidelines".

Interestingly, you end up with something that closely resembles a thesaurus, but one that is geared to your subject area. The thesauri themselves are enjoyable to browse and can easily be integrated into search queries to find conceptually related material.

As we are all discovering, it isn't enough to simply to have information available because the way you choose to organize your information may, ironically, be preventing people from finding and using it. Facetted Areas structure allow a for a multitude of information structures to coexist.

Looking on the horizon are technologies like RDF and XML topic maps and concepts like the Semantic Web and Knowledge Management all of which are attempting to make pieces of information more meaningful by understanding the relationships that exist between them. These technologies may make the web a "smarter" place to be, but in the meantime, integrating your search engines with your areas structure will make your sites more meaningful, useful and humane.

This is an adaptation for SharePoint 2003 Topics Areas found at



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