Today, in the age of “modern”, “personalized” and “intelligent” search applications, sometimes it’s still hard to find the content what we’re searching for. “I cannot find the document I am searching for!” – is still one of the most common complaint.


If the intended document cannot be found by search, that’s definitely a very confusing and annoying experience. Users want to understand what’s going on. Here is some help – to help them.

If a specific document doesn’t appear in the search results, one of the followings might be the reason:

  1. The document does not exist.
  2. The document does exist but not indexed by search.
  3. The document is in the search index but the current user doesn’t have access to see it.
  4. The document is in the search index and the current user does have access to it, but some filter applies which removes the document from the results.

+1: The query is incorrect.

Let’s see each case in more details.

1 – The document does not exist

The reason is obvious: if the document does not exist it cannot be displayed as a search result.

In many cases, this is the first thing what the users think if the intended document is not displayed as a search result – and they create it (again) or ask someone to create it (again). But in this post you’ll see this is not the only, furthermore not the most common reason! – As a result, organizations have more and more content duplicates.

(How to identify and what to do with content duplicates will be the topic for another blog post in January. Stay tuned!)

2 – The document does exist but is not indexed by search

Search results come from the search index.

Search processes - search results come from the search index

When a user enters a query, first it goes to the Query Processor component which transforms it, and asks the Search Index for results.

The Index component gives back the according, security trimmed results (see reason #3 below) which the Query Processor transforms and displays to the user.

What does it mean in practice? – This means that the intended document cannot be displayed as a search result until it’s indexed!

First of all, connect the content management system where the document is stored to search! Until it’s done, don’t expect any document stored there to be displayed in search.

If the document is new, wait until the next scheduled crawl runs and “pulls” it into the search index.

3 – The current user doesn’t have access to the intended document

As I’ve mentioned above, the SharePoint (and Office 365) search engine provides security trimmed results from the index. This means, only those items will be returned to which the current user has at least read access.

If the user cannot open/read the document in the source system (SharePoint site, file share, etc.), the document will not be returned as a result.

4 – There is some filter which removes the intended documents from the current result set

There is one more step where displaying results can go “wrong”. Result Sources, Query Rules, on-page filters, etc. all have effect on what’s being returned as search results. Please keep in mind that while being able to use these features’ filtering capabilities, those can be also confusing if not communicated to the users.

+1 – The query is incorrect

Last but not least, keep in mind that the query that the user enters might be misspelled, or contain incorrect keywords.


The primary end user confusion

The biggest confusion with a document that is not displayed as a search result is that as an end user there is no way to decide which is the reason from the list above. The most common thing users do is to blame search.

But search just does what we tell it to do.

The overall search configuration defines what results are being displayed, and how they’re displayed.

It’s that simple. Don’t blame the technology. Learn, understand it, and use your knowledge to configure it to be its best.


What to do?

If you are a search manager, you have everything to avoid this confusion.

The number one thing you can do is to educate your users. Tell them what you’ve learned from this post. Show them this post. Or add a link to your search pages pointing to this post.

“Search” is a magical black box for most of the users. You can be the magician if you help them with education, support, and an always-improving search experience. Don’t forget to listen their feedback – and answer them by taking actions. It’s the best way to be their hero.

If they ask you to debug why a specific document is not appearing in the search results, you can go through the list above and check what the reason is:

  • Go to the crawl rule to check if a specific document is indexed – and when.
  • Use the Search Query Tool to do advanced query debugging and troubleshooting.

Don’t forget – while debugging, some documents might be hidden from you, too. Why? – Read the possible reasons above…

Happy searching!

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