Working with Search Page Layouts : Advanced Topics on Refinement Panel

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9/13/2011 6:06:41 PM
The refinement panel in SharePoint 2010 is one of the more complex Web Parts to fully utilize. Its behavior is complex and can impose significant performance overhead when searching if configured wrongly. On the other hand, it does also provide a lot of options to leverage, which are not enabled in the default out-of-the-box configuration.

This section will focus on how to easily access and enable some of the most commonly requested features of the refinement panel. It will also discuss possible implications and side effects when enabling these features.

1. Adding Refiner Counts

One of the most hyped features of FAST for SharePoint 2010 is deep refinement and numbered refiners that show accurate counts, as seen in Figure 1. In FAST this is enabled in the default out-of-the-box refinement panel. SharePoint 2010 does not support deep refinement, but it does support numbered refiners. The functionality is just not enabled per default as seen in Figure 2.

Numbered refiners, also known as refiner counts, show the user how many search results refining by each metadata property value will return. This allows the user to quickly determine which rementents are most suitable to apply to get the desired search results. For applications where data set analysis is relevant, SharePoint 2010 is not suitable, as it does not produce accurate numbers and does not even necessarily show all refinement options due to limited precision.

Third-party solutions and free solutions with numbered refiners have existed since MOSS 2007. Examples are Ontolica from SurfRay A/S and the CodePlex refiners. Both offer similar functionality to that of SharePoint 2010, but are more scalable and easily maintained. Especially the Ontolica solution excels in refiner management.

An obvious question, then, is why numbered refiners are not enabled per default in SharePoint 2010. The likely reasons include their limited precision, which disturbs the immediate customer experience, and a desire to lower the default load on the index server. Marketing considerations likely also play a role with hiding this feature to make FAST more attractive compared to SharePoint 2010 Search.

Figure 1. FAST refiners

Figure 2. SharePoint 2010 refiners

To add the counts on the refiners for SharePoint 2010, the Filter Definition category must be edited as mentioned earlier.

Refiner counts can be added to individual properties. This allows site administrators to tweak performance, resource requirements, and usability. Refiner counts make more sense for some properties than others. Result Type, Site, and Author are obvious candidates that can benefit from refiner counts, whereas Modified Date is less obvious.

To add a refiner count for a property, the ShowCounts attribute should be added as displayed here. Remember to uncheck the Use Default Configuration check box for the changes to take effect as seen in Figure 3.

<Category Title="Result Type"

Figure 3. SharePoint 2010 refinement panel with count on selected properties

2. Changing the Accuracy Index

Unlike FAST, which has deep refiners and accurate refiner counts, SharePoint 2010 analyzes a subset of the total result set when determining refinements to show. This also applies to the refiner counts. The value that controls the size of the analyzed subset is called the accuracy index. This value is set on the refinement panel Web Part.

Having imprecise refiners is not per definition an issue as long as it is clearly understood by the users how they work. Often it is very valuable just to know if there are many or few results contained within a particular refinement. In situations like that, it does not matter if the refinement yields 300 or 30,000 results. The target is already achieved by the user being able to evaluate that this refinement does not trim the result set significantly.

Per default, however, the accuracy index that controls how many results are analyzed for the SharePoint 2010 search refinement panel is set to 50, which is too low for most corporations, as global searches must be expected to yield many more results than that. It can and should in most instances be increased to the maximum of 500. This is shown in Figures 4 and 5. Setting any larger number will automatically change that number to 500. This is hard-coded on the Web Part.

Figure 4. Accuracy index set to 50

Figure 5. Accuracy index set to 500

Increasing the accuracy index benefits the users, but it is also a costly operation to calculate refinements and counts. It is impossible to give rock-solid measurements on how performance is affected when increasing the accuracy index as it depends on the query and the composition and size of the total result set. It is noticeable when searching when the accuracy index is increased from 50 to 500 for a query that yields a total result set that exceeds 500. A good rule of thumb is to expect the query to take two to five times longer, which means the query can take two times as long to perform when increasing the accuracy index four times. For many smaller queries, the difference is close to non-existent.


A good way of increasing the usability of refiner counts is to increase the accuracy index to 500 and at the same time promote smaller result sets by introducing limited scopes. This generally makes the result sets smaller, thus rendering the refiner counts more accurate. It also increases the query performance.

If a higher accuracy is required on SharePoint 2010, a custom programmed solution or third-party solution such as Ontolica from SurfRay A/S is required. Ontolica allows for higher accuracy than the 500 limit. It is also able to estimate the total refinement counts based on the size of the total result set, thus producing much more reliable counts than SharePoint 2010 and with higher performance too. This is amongst others achieved by quantifying on the approximate total result count. To counter the performance hit a user could experience when computing the counts, Ontolica can load the refiner counts asynchroniosly. It should be noted however that although custom and 3rd party solutions in theory can analyze the entire result set and give deep refiners and counts, this is not practical in most cases as it would severely impact performance on large result sets.

3. Number of Categories to Display

Refiners are defined in the Filter Definition category XML file. They appear in the order that they are defined. A common issue is that added refiners do not show up or some existing refiner suddenly stops showing, depending on the order in which they are specified in the XML file. This can happen if the number of defined refiners exceeds the number of categories to display. Per default, six categories are displayed at most.

Another reason refiners are not showing can be the metadata threshold (which is discussed next). Well, it won't, if there already more refiners visible that are greater than the number of categories to display. From what I can gather, the refiners are basically rendered in the order they are in the XML, so if you put your refiner at the end and already the refinement panel has rendered the maximum amount, it won't be seen by users.

In the default Filter Definition category XML file, six refiners are defined per default. These are Result Type, Site, Author, Modified Date, Product Category, and Company Size.

If the number of six refiners does not fit in the custom branded page layout, it can be expanded or reduced by changing the number of categories to display. No limit on how many refiners can be added has been found so far. Changing the number to two now displays only the first two feasible refiners as seen in Figure 6.

Figure 6. Number of categories to display set to two

Although it should be fairly self-explanatory how to add new refiners, one issue has been raised a number of times: what if the order of the refiners in the XML file should differ from their priority to show? Currently this is not supported in SharePoint 2010. To achieve this, a third-party solution such as Ontolica from SurfRay A/S can be used. This supports such advanced behavior. Alternatively the CodePlex refiners can be modified to also achieve this, but that requires a significant portion of re-programming.

4. Metadata Threshold

One of the more difficult settings to work with is the metadata threshold. A common misunderstanding is that this value defines how many different values must be available for a given property. This is not correct. It actually defines how many times the property is found in any of the analyzed search results for the refiner to display.

Assume that the metadata threshold is set to 5 for the Result Type refiner. This refiner operates on the FileExtension property. If the analyzed search result set contains only two Word documents and two PDF files, then this refiner will not show. This then also affects how the "Number of categories to display" acts. If a total of ten refiners are defined and the first four do not show, then refiners five through nine will show. If search results often cause most refiners not to be shown due to the metadata threshold, it should be considered to create new refiners targeted at those situations to allow users to always do meaningful refinements. For this reason, it is not advisable to set the metadata threshold too low. Instead new refiners should be introduced.

The metadata threshold value is a byte, which means that the range is [0:255]. In the following example shown in Figures 7 and 8, the number of categories to display is set to 2 and the threshold is changed from 5 to 250 on the Result Type refiner to illustrate how it works.

Figure 7. Result Type threshold = 5

Figure 8. Result Type threshold = 250

5. Number of Characters to Display

This is not really an advanced topic but rather a hint of why to use a generally not-used setting on the refinement panel.

The "Number of characters to display" sets how many characters of each refinement option are displayed. The default value is 16, which is often too short to show meaningful information, especially for paths.

It is not uncommon to have names that are longer than 16 characters (Figure 9) or paths such as In this case, the limit of 16 is actually not enough to display the actual file and site names on the path. Instead it will be displayed with "http://subdomain..." as SharePoint refiners automatically apply the "..." to indicate a partial text. Setting this value too large is not a good idea either, as it wastes screen space. But in general it should be set to some value in the area of 25 to 30, which fits nicely with the standard search layout.

Figure 9. Ending of name trimmed and replaced with "..."
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