SharePoint Thesaurus… a great on-boarding tool! 

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Current focus on the Power of the Microsoft Graph for improved discoverability has left traditional SharePoint enterprise search capabilities a topic not many are talking about anymore.

Well I want to talk about it. 🙂

What do I mean about “traditional enterprise search”?  This…


… and the results it returns in the Enterprise Search Center.

Search in this traditional sense is still heavily used throughout our farms/tenants and we should be giving it the care and attention it deserves to ensure it is working optimally and providing accurate and relevant search results. Today, end-users expect a top quality search experience and it’s up to us as search administrators to configure the available search features in order to get them (keeping in mind there are other factors involved in good search results such as content quality – perhaps a later blog post).

I do recognize however that search as we’ve known it in the past is undergoing a metamorphosis as a result of the Microsoft Graph and due to this some capabilities are apt to change over the course of the coming months and years. It is my hope new capabilities will be introduced to surface intelligence-driven content in not only Delve and the SharePoint homepage, but also in the Enterprise Search Center.

The driving force behind writing this post stems from something I recently experienced first-hand. A few weeks back I started a new job and one of the first things I observed was the abundant use of acronyms strewn throughout conversations. I’m not talking about technical IT acronyms that we all know and love but rather the corporate-specific vernacular that is embedded in the fabric of any organization. Things like project acronyms, department acronyms, job title acronyms, and location acronyms to name a few. They seem to roll off the tongue for most long-term employees but can be a real challenge for new people joining an organization. Sometimes you can’t get the gist of a conversation if you don’t know the context of acronyms used. To make matters worse, a new person may not feel empowered to speak up and ask what an acronym means.

Although there are several techniques you can use in SharePoint to assist with on-boarding, a traditional search capability that can help with the problem I describe above is a thesaurus. The thesaurus is one of those features in SharePoint that doesn’t receive much attention but I think it’s an invaluable tool for search and could improve the experience for on-boarding new staff. For example, if a thesaurus had been set up, I could have searched for an acronym and received content back from not only the acronym but also the phrase it is abbreviating, likely a more helpful result than without it.

NOTE: to be clear, the thesaurus has benefits beyond on-boarding staff.  Basically any place where you want to surface content using synonymous terms. This is relevant for any type of searching by any search persona.


What does a thesaurus do?

It’s like you’re expanding your submitted query with synonyms … automatically.

For example, if you submitted a search for the term VP, ideally you would have search results for the terms Vice President, Executive Vice President and EVP included in your search results. Seems obvious but this is something you need to explicitly configure in search.

How do you configure it?

File Format

First thing you need to do is enter your terms and their synonyms in a comma-separated file. (.csv) Some key things to note:

  • Format required: KEY,SYNONYM, LANGUAGE
    • KEY: can contain single or multiple words, no trailing or leading spaces
    • SYNONYM: can contain single or multiple words, they are added to the query if the KEY is found anywhere in the search. If multiple words, its added as a phrase.
    • LANGUAGE: optional, if left blank it will always be included regardless of language used in the query. Refer to this table for codes:


Multiple synonyms

If you have >1 synonym for a term you need to enter it on a separate line


Reciprocal Synonyms

If you want the terms to be synonyms for each other, you need to enter it on a separate line.


Miscellaneous Format Rules

  • Terms can’t include: # / \ . ?
  • NOT case sensitive
  • When creating the file, if it contains non-ASCII characters, they must be encoded.

How do you deploy it?

  • You MUST use PowerShell to deploy the synonym file.
  • You must be a Search Service Application administrator.

[code language=”powershell” light=”true”]

$searchApp = Get-SPEnterpriseSearchServiceApplication
Import-SPEnterpriseSearchThesaurus -SearchApplication $searchApp -Filename <Path>

where <path> specifies the full UNC path of the .csv file (the thesaurus) to be imported

NOTE: You cannot export a thesaurus file. You have to have it stored external to SP somewhere and re-deploy it. It will overwrite the previous version.

Recent SharePoint Server Patch for Synonyms

Thanks to Mikael Svenson for pointing out to me a recent patch released for SharePoint 2013 that provides a new option for configuring synonym weighting. Up to this point in time, the default weighting for synonyms was only 20%. With this update, the synonyms can be configured to equal weighting (100%). This is excellent news.

This update enables search administrator to set a new Search Service Application property, in order to treat expanded synonyms with the same weight as the original query during rank calculation. For example, search administrator can reset the synonym weight to 1.


September 13, 2016 CU for SharePoint Server 2013 (KB3118269)
SharePoint 2013 September 2016 CU

SharePoint Online options

The thesaurus is NOT available in SharePoint Online as of the writing of this post however it IS on the roadmap as was discussed at the Microsoft Atlanta Ignite conference in September 2016. This is excellent news! Here is a snip of the slide from the break-out session linked below.

Explore new personalized, intelligence-powered search experiences in SharePoint, Delve


It is my hope this means a synonym will be used in not only surfacing content in the enterprise search centre, but perhaps also in Delve results.

In the meantime, if you need to introduce synonyms into your SharePoint Online environment read the section below that highlights an innovative solution built by 2 smart people in the SharePoint community.

A Thesaurus Innovation!

An excellent alternative to the technique described in this post for deploying a thesaurus was built by Elio Struyf (@eliostruyf) and Mikael Svenson (@mikaelsvenson). Their solution works in SharePoint 2013/2016 AND Online and uses a SharePoint list to hold the synonyms and a script you add to your search results page in order to read and apply the synonyms from the list to your search results. Brilliant!

Thanks to Elio Struyf and Mikael Svenson for sharing their innovative solution with the community!




I’m keenly interested in the new capabilities Microsoft will roll-out to both SharePoint Server, SharePoint Online and Delve for search/discoverability capabilities. Although the Graph has added a layer of intelligence and discoverability on top of traditional search, at times there will still be a requirement for specific search configuration to deliver a more targeted search experience. The thesaurus is an excellent example of that.

Thanks for reading.


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