Microsoft Search was just announced (Ignite 2018, last week in September). To be honest, when I saw the announcement, my reaction with “Hmmph. So what”
Since when I have been reflecting on it quite a bit; and showing Microsoft Search to various people. I’m now shifted from “Hmmph” to “Gosh! Hmmm, that could really work”. Everyone I have shown it to has said it’s good – even my technosceptical wife.
Ordinary users rarely think to go to their intranet to look for things – they jump straight to a search engine – almost always Google
Microsoft Search, like so many good ideas, is a simple concept. Ordinary users rarely think to go to their intranet to look for things – they jump straight to a search engine – almost always Google. Diverging, for a moment, there is a well-worn process that architects etc. use when deciding where to lay paths and pavements; they wait a few months and then put them where the grass has been flattened by heavy footfall. Microsoft are doing the same – instead of plaintively pleading with people to go to where Microsoft would like them to be, they are putting the things tools where the people are already going – it seems that Microsoft have learned, at last, that they can’t dictate behaviour to end users. With Microsoft Search, they are putting corporate search where the users are, rather than trying to force users to the intranet, where the company search has traditionally lived. Microsoft Search cleverly returns results from across Office 365 as part of the ordinary search engine results. The caveat is that the search engine has to be Bing, not Google (more on that later).
Microsoft are putting corporate search where the users are, rather than trying to force users to the intranet
For the user, it’s as simple as opening a browser (probably Chrome or Edge) and typing their search into the search box or address bar. At the top of the results they get are items from across their Office 365, including SharePoint, OneDrive, Yammer (and soon to include Teams, Stream etc.). There are even some fancy recommendations, branding and the ability to limit the search to files, sites or conversations. The only thing the user really needs to do is ensure that they have logged in to the browser with their work credentials, and presumably this is something which can be automated by canny IT departments.
For the IT department, there’s a little bit to do but is not too onerous. They need to set up Microsoft Search from the admin portal, which is available via the Office 365 admin centre. From here it’s possible to apply a branded logo and colour, as well as provide some search suggestions to get people used to the concept. There other neat features here, including the ability to build out question-and-answer sets (which is almost certainly using Azure QnA Maker), define bookmarks for recommended links (and import SharePoint best bets where this concept originates), alongside the expected management capabilities.
It is also likely that IT will want to push out Bing as the default search engine using group policy. There’s probably a piece of work to do to reassure users and management that this is not exposing corporate information to the Internet.
There’s bound to be a few raised eyebrows at the use of Bing. However, the choice of Bing versus Google is a bit like being forced to choose between a Maserati and Ferrari; they’re both really rather good, even if you’d rather have the Ferrari.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Microsoft have lost the battle against Google on the personal desktop, even though Bing is a perfectly adequate engine. But in the corporate space they might just win it with this move; there’s no real downside to this choice of search engine and the ability to present corporate content is a huge win. Organisations actively need their users to be accessing curated and governed company knowledge rather than finding out things from the Internet. They don’t even have to force users to use Edge if they don’t want to (though it has become an excellent browser over the last year); every decent browser lets you define the default search engine.
- Users will love it, so they will use it. It’s quick, doesn’t require any training and shows user relevant results that they would otherwise miss. Plus it takes zero effort or knowhow.
- It increases the chance of users finding what they need, while improving compliance and governance.
- It provides richer results than just an Internet search, including finding people and conversations, not just documents; this can include specific bookmarked content and frequently asked questions. It’s probably better than their current intranet search, in fact.
What of the intranet?
If we place this release alongside the rapid rise of Microsoft Teams (allegedly the fastest adopted application Microsoft has ever built) and the rapid shift to mobile apps, and it does beg the question of the role of an intranet in general and the value of the intranet home page in particular ( especially as it relates to SharePoint).
A decent intranet attempts to pack search, news, applications and interactive content onto the homepage, while team and departmental collaboration sites lurk within the structure. However, modern SharePoint Online sites seamlessly push news content to the SharePoint mobile app, ready to be consumed by users on their Android or Apple phone. The recently promised option to add custom applications into Microsoft Teams (which is equally happy on the desktop or the mobile) means that the majority of users may never need to touch the browser-based intranet, other than via the mobile application. This means that they will never see the homepage.
It may take a few years, but is now easy to imagine a future where the current concepts of an intranet are genuinely thing of the past; users will simply have no need to go to a ‘stuffy intranet home page’ for the vast majority of activity, they will be using Teams for collaboration, interaction and business process (perhaps supported by custom Power Apps) and consuming content via the SharePoint app (until it gets called something else). The role of the SharePoint partner or internal developer will change it again, with even more emphasis on strong information architecture to support intelligent content and coordinate the rich ecosystem of content, communication, collaboration, business process and people. Advanced content management will underpin everything, but the user experience will happen somewhere else entirely.
You can find out more about Microsoft Search here and on the site Bing or set it up via your Admin Portal if you are already in Office 365 organisation.