12 November 2007

Using SharePoint Search as a Research Content Source

Back in Office 2003, Microsoft introduced the concept of the "task pane."  The task pane was a panel that appeared on the right side of the Office interface (at least for the "first class" Office products).  The task pane represented a few different functions -- from showing the status of a document in SharePoint, to allowing you to manage permissions on a document.   Included with these functions was something called the "Research" task pane. 

The Research task pane allows you to search various information sources using basic keyword-type searches.  For example, if you highlight a word in a document and right click, you see a function called "Look Up."  When you select that option, the feature searches through the dictionary (for example) for the definition of the term you highlighted.  You can see this function in figure 1-1.


Figure 1-1 The context menu allows you to lookup a term in Office 2007

When you execute this function, the Research task pane dutifully appears on your right.  By default, the task pane appears to the right and displays the search result. In addition, it exposes a number of other sources that the search can be executed against (shown in figure 1-2).


Figure 1-2 The task pane and the content sources.

When I first saw this feature, I thought it was a way to extract additional dollars out of buyers of Office, since a good number of the research sources were premium sites that wouldn't allow you access to the content without a subscription.  However, I then noticed a link at the bottom of the task pane labeled "Research Options."  Clicking on this link allows you to control what sources are included in your task pane, as well as allowing you to add addition sources as shown in figure 1-3.


Figure 1-3 The Research Options dialog

As it turns out, it's easy to add your own sources, in addition to enabling ones already defined within Office.  In fact, one of the best sources of "research" is SharePoint.  SharePoint's own search web service is already setup to be included as a search source (MOSS, not WSS). 

To add your SharePoint site as a search source, follow the instructions below:

  1. Click on Add Services button
  2. Type in the URL of the SharePoint search service.  The default URL for the search web service is: http://[server_name]/_vti_bin/search.asmx.  Simply replace [server_name] with the host of your SharePoint site.
  3. Click on OK and Office will validate the selection to determine whether there's a compatible search service.  
  4. Once Office validates the search service, it will show you the name of the search service available to be included.  The service name will be the name of the primary MOSS site where search is hosted.

  5. Simply click on Install and your MOSS search service will be added to your research source.

Once you've added your own internal search as a source, any lookup done within first class citizens of Office (Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Access), can use that source to look up terms and return search results, just as any other source.   When users click on a search result, Internet Explorer automatically opens, preserves the search results in pane on the left side of the interface and show the specific, chosen result in the main window (as shown in figure 1-4).  Now, all users have to do is navigate the various results until they find the one they feel meets their requirement.


Figure 1-4 Search results preserved in IE

This feature is particularly valuable for organizations that need to connect employees with content throughout the enterprise.  In addition, it adheres to a good rule of thumb about portals: don't make your employees leave the applications they're comfortable using -- surface the functionality in the applications where they do their work

08 November 2007

IIR/SharedInsights Portals, Collaboration and Content Management Conference

[UPDATED: 25 November 2007 - Slight flow changes to the content]

I've just returned from the IIR/SharedInsights Portals, Collaboration and Content Management conference.  While I've been speaking at this conference for a few years, this year's conference was a bit unique.  Unlike past conferences, where the vast majority of the attendees were more business oriented and "non-denominational" when it came to technology, this year's attendees were more technical and were very interested in specific technologies -- a good many of them interested in SharePoint.  It seemed that many of the attendees were either starting to implement or had implemented "phase 1," a smaller percentage were making their final decisions around what portal platform they would implement in the coming months -- almost universally, SharePoint was in the product mix, if not the chosen portal platform (hence the interest).  However, there still seemed to be a lot of basic questions about how SharePoint would fit in the enterprise.  To that end, I wanted to recommend a book written by some former colleagues of mine.  It's called Essential SharePoint 2007. 

What makes this book somewhat unique in the space (since there are absolutely tons of book on SharePoint 2007) is that it takes a less technological route.  The book focuses on business usage more than technological implementation.  I would recommend it as good starting point for anyone interested in SharePoint -- whether or not you're technically inclined.  In addition, CMSWatch also has a number of reports which compare SharePoint to other tools in the ECM/Portal space.  These reports would also be valuable for anyone considering SharePoint.

Now, even in the SharePoint 2003 days, there was great interest in SharePoint -- organization's interest in 2007 is not really unique.  In a good majority of the cases, the Windows SharePoint Services component was and is a very big leap in accessible (easily obtained and easy to install) collaborative technology, but it is also just darn easy to use for the vast majority of typical Office users.  Contributing to this ease of use is the fact that the technology is directly integrated with Office -- even people with older versions of Office can use it (you don't have to match SharePoint's version with your Office version).  However, the 2007 version (and WSS v3) seems to have created a great deal more buzz.

From what I heard from attendees, most organizations were hoping to leverage the portal capabilities found in MOSS.  There was a slightly smaller group interested in pure team collaboration management -- project teams need a place to deposit assets and work from one "song book."  Finally, there were those groups who felt that SharePoint was almost a "blight," but needed to figure out how to manage it (my guess is that these individuals got caught in the WSS explosion that occurs in many organizations). 

If I were to identify the biggest changes/advantages, it would be in two categories: 1) expanding content management capabilities and 2) improved extensibility.  On the content management side, web content management tops the list.  This feature allows you to manage traditional web sites using SharePoint.   In addition, Microsoft has added new forms of contribution with the addition of Wiki and Blog templates.    When you add these capabilities to the business intelligence and forms processing features, Microsoft has taken SharePoint native content management function to a whole new level.

For the developer types, 2007 represents a leap forward in extensibility, where almost everything inside of SharePoint is accessible through the object model.   For example, you can write your own authentication provider, to enable SharePoint to use something other than Active Directory to authenticate users (unheard of in SharePoint 2003).  It's also now possible to easily add new interface elements to native SharePoint administrative screens using the "features" capability.

For those of you who might be interested in some of the content at the conference, IIR has posted some podcasts on their web site.   More podcasts will be posted as time goes by (include my own).  If you're interested in attending the spring conference, you can find more details on the IIR web site (you may want to wait a few days before searching around, since the current conference is still running as of 8 November).