Lee Romero

On Content, Collaboration and Findability

Archive for October 28th, 2008

Enterprise Search and Third-Party Applications

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

Or, in other words, “How do you apply the application standards to improve findability to applications built by third-party providers who do not follow your standards?”

I’ve previously written about the standards I’ve put together for (web-based) applications that help ensure good findability for content / data within that application. These standards are generally relatively easy to apply to custom applications (though it can still be challenging to get involved with the design and development of those applications at the right time to keep the time investment minimal, as I’ve also previously written about).

However, it can be particularly challenging to apply these standards to third-party applications – For example, your CRM application, your learning management system, or your HR system, etc. Applying the existing standards could take a couple of different forms:

  1. Ideally, when your organization goes through the selection process for such an application, your application standards are explicitly included in the selection criteria and used to ensure you select a solution that will conform to your standards
  2. More commonly, you will identify compliance to the standards (perhaps during selection but perhaps later during implementation) and you might need to implement some type of customization within the application to provide compliance.
  3. Hopefully, you identify compliance to the standards during selection or later, but you find you can not customize the application and you need a different solution.

The rest of this post will discuss a solution for option #3 above – how you can implement a different solution. Note that some search engines will provide pre-built functionality to enable search within many of the more common third party solutions – those are great and useful, but what I will present here is a solution that can be implemented independent of the search engine (as long as the search engine has a crawler-based indexing function) and which is relatively minimal in investment.

Solving the third-party application conundrum for Enterprise Search

So, you have a third party application and, for whatever reason, it does not adhere to your application standards for findability. Perhaps it fails the coverage principle and it’s not possible to adequate find the useful content without getting many, many useless items; or perhaps it’s the identity principle and, while you can find all of the desirable targets, they have redundant titles; or it might even be that the application fails the relevance principle and you can index the high value targets and they show up with good names in results but they do not show up as relevant for keywords which you would expect. Likely, it’s a combination of all three of these issues.

The core idea in this solution is that you will need a helper application that creates what I call “shadow pages” of the high value targets you want to include in your enterprise search.

Note: I adopted the use of the term “shadow page” based on some informal discussions with co-workers on this topic – I am aware that others use this term in similar ways (though I don’t think it means the exact same thing) and also am aware that some search engines address what they call shadow domains and discourage their inclusion in their search results. If there is a preferred term for the idea described here – please let me know!

What is a shadow page? For my purposes here, I define a shadow page as:

  • A page which uniquely corresponds to a single desirable search target;
  • A page that has a distinct, unique URL;
  • A page that has a <title> and description that reflects the search target of which it is a shadow, and that title is distinct and provides a searcher who sees it in a search results page with insight about what the item is;
  • A page that has good metadata (keywords or other fields) that describe the target using terminology a searcher would use;
  • A page which contains text (likely hidden) that also reflects all of the above as well to enhance relevance for the words in the title, keywords, etc.;
  • A page which, when accessed, will automatically redirect a user to the page of which the page is a shadow.

To make this solution work, there are a couple of minimal assumptions of the application. A caveat: I recognize that, while I consider these as relatively simple assumptions, it is very likely that some applications will still not be able to meet these and so not be able to be exposed via your enterprise search with this type of solution.

  1. Each desirable search target must be addressable by a unique URL;
  2. It should be possible to define a query which will give you a list of the desirable targets in the application; this query could be an SQL query run against a database or possible a web services method call that returns a result in XML (or probably other formats but these are the most common in my experience);
  3. Given the identity (say, a primary key if you’re using a SQL database of some type) of a desirable search target, you must be able to also query the application for additional information about the search target.

Building a Shadow Page

Given the description of a shadow page and the assumptions about what is necessary to support it, it is probably obvious how they are used and how they are constructed, but here’s a description:

First – you would use the query that gives you a list of targets (item #2 from the assumptions) from your source application to generate an index page which you can give your indexer as a starting point.  This index page would have one link on it for each desirable target’s shadow page.  This index page would also have “robots” <meta> tags of “noindex,follow” to ensure that the index page itself is not included as a potential target.

Second – The shadow page for each target (which the crawler reaches thanks to the index page) is dynamically built from the query of the application given the identity of the desirable search target (item #3 from the assumptions).  The business rules defining how the desirable target should behave in search help define the necessary query, but the query would need to contain at minimum some of the following data: the name of the target, a description or summary of the target, some keywords that describe the target, a value which will help define the true URL of the actual target (per assumption #1, there must be a way to directly address each target).

The shadow page would be built something like the following:

  • The <title> tag would be the name of the target from the query (perhaps plus an application name to provide context)
  • The “description” <meta> tag would be the description or summary of the target from the query, perhaps plus a few static keywords that help ensure the presence of additional insight about the target.   For example, if the target represents a learning activity, the additional static text might indicate that.
  • The “keywords” <meta> tag would include the keywords from the query, plus some static keywords to ensure good coverage.  To follow the previous example, it might be appropriate to include words like “learning”, “training”, “class”, etc. in a target that is a learning activity to ensure that, if the keywords for the specific target do not include those words, searchers can still find the shadow page target in search.
  • The <body> of the page can be built to include all of the above text – from my experience, wrapping the body in a CSS style that visually hides the text keeps the text from actually appearing in a browser.
  • Lastly, the shadow page has a bit of JavaScript in it that redirects a browser to the actual target – this is why you need to have the target addressable via a URL and also that the query needs to provide the information necessary to create that URL.  Most engines (I know of none) will not be able to execute the JavaScript, so will not know that the page is really a redirect to the desired target.

The overall effect of this is that the search engine will index the shadow page, which has been constructed to ensure good adherence to the principles of enterprise search, and to a searcher, it will behave like a good search target but when the user clicks on it from a search result, the user ends up looking at the actual desired target.  The only clue the user might have is that the URL of the target in the search results is not what they end up looking at in their browser’s address bar.

The following provides a simple example of the source (in HTML – sorry for those who might not be able to read it) for a shadow page (the parts that change from page to page are in bold):

<TITLE>title of target</TITLE>
<meta name="robots" content="index, nofollow">
<meta name="keywords" content="keywords for target">
<meta name="description" content="description of target">
<script type="text/javascript">
document.location.href="URL of actual target";
<div style="display:none;">
<h1>title of target</h1>
description of target and keywords of target

Advantages of this Solution

A few things that are immediately obvious advantages of this approach:

  1. First and foremost, with this approach, you can provide searchers with the ability to find content which otherwise would be locked away and not available via your enterprise search!
  2. You can easily control the targets that are available via your enterprise search within the application (potentially much easier than trying to figure out the right combination of robots tags or inclusion / exclusion settings for your indexer).
  3. You can very tightly control how a target looks to the search engine (including integration with your taxonomy to provide elaborated keywords, synonyms, etc)

Problems with this Solution

There are also a number of issues that I need to highlight with this approach – unfortunately, it’s not perfect!

  1. The most obvious issue is that this depends on the ability to query for a set of targets against a database or web service of some sort.
    1. Most applications will be technically able to support this, but in many organizations, this could present too great a risk from a data security perspective (the judicious use of database views and proper management of read rights on the database should solve this, however!)
    2. This potentially creates too high a level of dependence between your search solution and the inner workings of the application – an upgrade of the application could change the data schema enough to break this approach.  Again, I think that the use of database views can solve this (by abstracting away the details of the implementation into a single view which can be changed as necessary through any upgrade).
  2. Some applications may simply not offer a “deep linking” ability into high value content – there is no way to uniquely address a content item without the context of the application.  This solution can not be applied to such applications.  (Though my opinion is that such applications are poorly designed, but that’s another matter entirely!)
  3. This solution depends on JavaScript to forward the user from the shadow page to the actual target.  If your user population has a large percentage of people who do not use JavaScript, this solution fails them utterly.
  4. This solution depends on your search engine not following the JavaScript or somehow otherwise determining that the shadow page is a very low quality target (perhaps by examining the styles on the text and determining the text is not visible).  If you have a search engine that is this smart, hopefully you have a way to configure it to ignore this for at least some areas or page types.
  5. Another major issue is that this solution largely circumvents a search engine’s built in ability to do item-by-item security as the target to the search engine is the shadow page.  I think the key here is to not use this solution for content that requires this level of security.


There you have it – a solution to the exposure of your high value targets from your enterprise applications that is independent of your search engine and can provide you (the search administrator) with a good level of control over how content appears to your search engine, while ensuring that what is included highly adheres to my principles of enterprise search.