Microsoft Search: What you need to know

Microsoft has been working directly and indirectly to create a unified internal search capability for years. By the end of 2020, Microsoft Search is on tap to deliver on some of its core promises.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor
Credit: Microsoft

In 2018, Microsoft introduced its plans for a unified search experience across Windows, Edge and its Office apps. Since then, the company has been filling in the pieces of that experience, which it branded "Microsoft Search." In December this year, Microsoft is on tap to deliver a number of the missing components tat the core of its unified search strategy, so it feels like the perfect time for an explainer on Microsoft Search. 

What is Microsoft Search? Microsoft Search is a combination of technologies meant to bring together Intranet and Web results across a number of Microsoft products and services. It's a new unified search approach that Microsoft first announced publicly in 2018.

Where did Microsoft Search come from? What's its history? Microsoft has been operating a number of different search platforms in addition to Bing, for years. It had SharePoint Search, Outlook Search, Windows Search and more.

In 2008, Microsoft bought Oslo, Norway-based Fast Search & Transfer. Fast's technology became the core of what is now known as the Microsoft Graph.

The Fast Team had pioneered the ability to tailor the types of searches users could do with indexing and customization that Microsoft built into SharePoint Search. In 2014, Microsoft showed off Delve, its internal search and presentation app. Delve was the first public instantiation of the Microsoft Graph, its centralized application programming interface (API). Behind the scenes, Microsoft was bringing together its various search mechanisms and focusing them around the Microsoft Graph and activity around people.
What's the relationship between Microsoft Search and Bing? Microsoft teams working on unified Search have been adopting core capabilities developed by the Bing Team, such as how to talk about a topic without having a particular topic word in a query. In 2017, Microsoft announced "Bing for Business," a precursor to its all-up Microsoft Search strategy. Microsoft's thinking: Bring search to where users are instead of making them go to a specific site or app to search.

Today, Microsoft customers who are signed into their Microsoft 365/Office 365 work accounts will see both Web and work search results when they go to Bing.com. They'll see listings (which only an individual user will see) for their work calendar items, people/colleagues, files, groups, and organizational information. Administrators have the option of turning this capability on/off for their organization's users.

At the start of 2020, Microsoft announced plans to forcibly install Bing search extensions in Chrome for Office 365 ProPlus users. Microsoft officials seemingly believed this 'Bingjacking' would help get Microsoft Search more broadly adopted across its user base. After some pointed customer feedback, Microsoft relented and rethought its plans on this front.

Is Microsoft Search ultimately going to supplant Bing? Nope. Bing will remain Microsoft's Web search offering. Microsoft Search will be the unified Intranet search offering. The two search pillars will likely continue to share techniques and technologies when appropriate. Microsoft Search and the underlying Microsoft Graph are meant to help make sense of users' work life (documents, the entities, the people they work with regularly, etc.). Bing's main focus is to provide an understanding of the world outside an organization, with acronym and entity extraction, machine reading comprehension, computer vision and other tools and technologies, officials say.

For which Microsoft products and services does Microsoft Search already exist? Microsoft Search boxes and work results already are accessible via a number of Microsoft products, including SharePoint, Outlook, OneDrive and Office.com apps. Microsoft Search is designed to work on Windows desktops, but also in mobile versions of the Office apps.

At Ignite this year, Microsoft also announced that it is developing a standalone Microsoft Search service that can be connected to users apps and data platforms. (The Standalone Search private preview is coming soon.) The standalone solution is an option for customers who aren't all into the cloud and not big Microsoft 365/Office 365 users, but who may still benefit from Microsoft Search. "Microsoft 365 subscribers can index external content using our Graph connectors, available from Microsoft and our partners to surface that data in our native apps (e.g. SharePoint, Office, etc.). The standalone solution uses the same connectors for indexing external data," officials said.

Speaking of third-party content, can Microsoft Search provide search results across non-Microsoft products and services? Microsoft Search indexes users' Microsoft 365 data. With Microsoft Graph connectors, companies also can index third-party data so that it will appear in Microsoft Search results. The third-party data can be hosted on-premises or in the public or private clouds.

What's next on the Microsoft Search roadmap? The Microsoft 365 Roadmap is more of a marketing tool than a true, engineering roadmap. But even if the roadmap is only partially accurate and complete, December 2020 is going to be a very big month for Microsoft Search.

Among the tens of new Microsoft Search features listed as December deliverables are the Microsoft Search page coming to Teams; integration between Dynamics 365 and Microsoft Search; Microsoft Search results available in Office Mobile; a public preview of semantic search, which will be focused on better understanding users' intent, meaning and context in their searches; and Microsoft Search integration with Windows Search.

What's Microsoft Search in Windows going to look like? There's already an engine for searching in Windows, which users will be able to continue to use to find apps, documents and files, emails and Web results. Starting this December when Microsoft Search gets integrated with Windows Search, the results users will get when using the search box in Windows will show more relevant results, in order to help users find people, emails, documents and more.

What's the relationship between Microsoft Search and Project Cortex, Microsoft's knowledge-management technologies? Project Cortex, as Microsoft originally envisioned it, was set to be a centralized knowledge-management service. At Ignite 2020, Microsoft officials explained that due to customer feedback, Cortex would be delivered as a set of add-on services, rather than a single service, starting with SharePoint Syntex, the AI content and understanding piece of Cortex.

Microsoft Search is people-centric, as officials like to say, meaning that a lot of its search results are anchored in the people with whom customers are interacting. Microsoft Search will help users find experts within their organizations who focus on particular topics. And topic answers/topic cards -- another key piece of Cortex -- will likely be surfaced via Microsoft Search starting in December 2020.

(Thanks to Microsoft's Dan Holme, Director of Product Marketing, Next Gen productivity and Usage and Naomi Moneypenny, Director of Product Development for Project Cortex for assistance with this explainer.)

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