Intelligent Search for All
On May 6, Microsoft announced the upcoming general availability of Microsoft Search, labeled as “intelligent search for the enterprise.” According to the post, the new search capabilities combine artificial intelligence from Bing and “deep, personalized insights” from the Microsoft Graph to make search more effective.
Microsoft Search is already embedded as the search technology used throughout Office 365. Enter a query in the search bar in apps like OWA and SharePoint and it’s Microsoft Search that delivers the results. Microsoft controls these app experiences, so they get to choose what search engine is used.
What’s different now is an effort to expand Microsoft Search to combine results from Office 365 sources with results drawn from the rest of the web. The project is called Microsoft Search for Bing because the combination of results is only available when you search through Bing.com or configure Bing as your browser’s search engine and have logged into an Office 365 tenant. Whether seeing Office 365 results alongside other material will make you want to give up your current search engine remains to be seen, but let’s explore how the connection with Office 365 works.
Connecting Office 365
To connect these services, got to the Services & Add-ins section of the Microsoft 365 Admin Center and select Microsoft Search in Bing to enable Bing for the tenant (Figure 1).
You can then configure settings such as the connected services, content, and bookmarks using a setup wizard or through the Microsoft Search Admin portal (a slightly different version of the portal is accessible through the Microsoft Search option under Settings).
Searching with Bing
A couple of hours later, after Office 365 services are connected to Microsoft Search in Bing, users see a link to expose results from the organization when they use Bing to search from Bing.com or their browser. Clicking the link shows results from the connected sources, divided into sections:
- Q&A: Answers to common questions created for the organization. For example, if you wanted users to see a biography of the company’s CEO when they search for the term “CEO,” you can create an answer pointing to a suitable web page. To get the result shown in Figure 2, I created a Q&A for “Office 365 eBook” so that any search for this phrase caused Bing to show a pointer to the book’s web site. Creating an answer to questions like this takes no more than a minute or two.
- Files: Documents found in SharePoint and OneDrive for Business libraries accessible to the user.
- Sites: SharePoint sites in the tenant matching the search term.
- Conversations: Messages from Teams and Yammer conversations. Teams messages are marked private (personal chat) or public (channel conversations). Yammer messages are public.
- People: People in the organization’s directory.
Brief snippets are shown of the five most relevant hits in each category. If more hits are available, the user is brought to the underlying app (for example, SharePoint Online) to perform a more exhaustive search.
Another nice feature is the way that Bing displays information about people in the organization within search results (Figure 3). When someone searches for me, they see my personal details (essentially, the same information as my Delve profile), current availability in my calendar, the last file I worked on that’s shared with them, and other sites, documents, and Yammer messages I am involved with. It’s important to underline that Bing respects the permissions held by the person who conducts the search. No information is ever revealed unless that person has access to the original data in the connected sources. In the case of the recent document shown in Figure 3, it is shared with the logged-in user.
Email Excluded (for Now)
Email stored in Exchange Online or on-premises mailboxes (in hybrid organizations) do not show up when you connect Office 365 to Microsoft Search for Bing. Exchange is the largest Office 365 workload, but searches in some clients (Outlook desktop in particular) have been less than awe-inspiring over the years. Recently, clients like Outlook mobile have begun to use the full panoply of AI and Graph-based recommendations to generate search results. Not including email as a connected source for Microsoft Search in Bing seems like a strange omission.
I asked Microsoft why Exchange was excluded from Microsoft Search in Bing. Their response was that they want to connect Exchange into Bing searches, but they decided to start with Teams, Yammer, and SharePoint to understand the best way to deliver the most relevant content to users. The sheer volume of email and the signals that influence relevance (for instance, a message from my direct boss is more relevant than a message from someone outside my management chain) is much higher than the other sources. Given these facts, it is taking longer for Microsoft to refine and optimize the results from email before they expose Exchange as a connected source for Bing. We can expect the situation to change in the future.
Good Enough to Switch?
Microsoft Search for Bing is only useful if people use Bing to search. It becomes an invisible feature when they use other search engines like Google or DuckDuckGo (even if you use the new Chrome-based Edge). However, if your corporate standard search engine is Bing, integrating Office 365 sources into its results is a surprisingly useful and worthwhile extension that is worth investigating.