Office 365 is now almost ubiquitous in the corporate sector and increasingly in the public sector. Embedded into O365 is a search application which is optimized for Microsoft files and may well be the first time employees and IT departments have experienced a powerful search application. De facto it represents a benchmark against with other search applications may be judged. However it comes with some challenges. I have invited Agnes Molnar, one of the few independent search consultants with SharePoint/O365 expertise, to summarise the current situation
and future developments. In addition Agnes reports on Project Context. Agnes is based in Budapest.
In my opinion, 2020 will finally be an exciting year in Microsoft’s Search ecosystem. After a few years of being sedated, Search is an important topic again – probably more than ever. With the new features in Microsoft Search, and also the general availability of Project Cortex, As of today (early 2020), we have three out-of-the-box search options in Office 365.
- “Classic” Search;
- Microsoft Search (“Modern” Search);
- PnP Modern Search web parts.
I will summarise each of these options, their strengths, and weaknesses, as well as what we know about the future of Microsoft Search.
“Classic” Search in Office 365
Although Microsoft made it clear that “Classic” Search is “legacy” in Office 365, it’s still very popular: many organizations invested into its customizations, and they’re not ready to move on (yet). The benefits of “Classic” Search today:
- It’s out-of-the-box in SharePoint Online, no need to install or deploy anything.
- Configuration and customizations can be done to make it fit your organization’s needs.
However, the message is clear: no improvements have been made to “Classic” search in the last 5+ years at all. All the focus and investments all went to the “Modern” Search (see below). Also, Microsoft made it clear that there won’t be any further updates or enhancements in the future. “Classic” search is definitely legacy know, although there is no end-of-support date yet.
Microsoft Search (“Modern” Search)
Microsoft Search has evolved a lot in the past year. From just being an announcement and a first feature set a year ago, it’s a real, much stronger option today. First of all, finally we have a consistent and coherent search experience across Office 365. Moreover, the same experience can be found in the Office applications. For example, while writing these words, I can search the suite bar of Microsoft Word, and see results and suggestions from our Office 365 tenant:
The benefits of Microsoft Search today:
- It’s out-of-the-box in SharePoint Online, no need to install or deploy anything.
- It’s modern.
- It’s updated regularly, and new features are being rolled out frequently.
There are two more important things to know about this feature.
First, everything here is personalized. The suggestions and results are coming from Microsoft Graph, which respects who I am, what I’ve been working on recently, who I am connected to, etc.
Second, everything here is security trimmed. If you have no access to a document, there is no way you can discover it here.
Its current capabilities include:
- Acronyms (being rolled out)
- Floor Plans (being rolled out)
- Search Connectors (being rolled out) and APIs.
Taking a look at the Office 365 Roadmap, we can also see that there are many Microsoft Search improvements in the “Development” phase. A few significant updates and their Feature IDs (please note, Microsoft updates the schedule quite often. If you want an up-to-date schedule, consult the Roadmap):
- Customize search results for your organization (32738)
- Search scoping controls with Microsoft Search (57098)
- Custom verticals and refiners in Microsoft Search (57054)
- Semantic search in Microsoft Search (57063)
- Spelling suggestions in Microsoft Search (57127)
- Query alterations using SPFx (SharePoint Framework) for custom results page (57135)
As you can see, Microsoft is working hard to add customization features to Microsoft Search. Once these updates are rolled out (later in 2020, according to the Roadmap), especially in combination with the Search Connectors and APIs, Microsoft Search will reach its full power.
Until then, we have to wait or accept current capabilities.
PnP Modern Search web parts
The two options above leave us and every organization in a severe dilemma: invest (more) to “classic” search because this is the only option that can be fully customized today; or use Microsoft Search as it is today, with its limited configurations, and zero customization.
Both options are far from ideal.
This is where the SharePoint PnP Community comes into the picture. The SharePoint Development Community (also known as the SharePoint PnP community) is an open-source project where Microsoft and external community members are sharing their learnings around implementation practices for Office 365, SharePoint & Office. This community controls SharePoint (and Office 365) development documentation, samples, reusable controls, and other relevant open-source initiatives related to SharePoint (and Office 365) development. The PnP library uses the Microsoft Open Source Code of Conduct.
The PnP Community also recognized the pain point of Microsoft Search not being customizable. The PnP Modern Search solution allows us to build custom, user-friendly search experiences in SharePoint Online, using SPFx (SharePoint Framework) in the modern user interface.
This is the option where we have all together today:
- Query suggestions;
- Custom refiners (can be “classic”-like refiners on the left side, or “modern” filters on a right-side panel);
- Custom search verticals;
- Promoted results;
- Result set (can be displayed as a list of results, as well as tiles – or custom!);
- Drop-down to re-order the results;
- Multi-lingual search;
- NLP enhancements;
- And many more.
The PnP Modern Search solution can be considered as a “bridge” between “classic” search and Microsoft Search. It can help organizations to customize Search to their needs, and the users to adopt Office 365 easier.
In November 2019, Microsoft announced Project Cortex, the new knowledge network feature / vision in Microsoft 365. Although this is not “search” per se, it is strongly related.
According to Microsoft, “Project Cortex uses AI to create a knowledge network that reasons over your organization’s data and automatically organizes it into shared topics like projects and customers. It also delivers relevant knowledge to people across your organization through topic cards and topic pages in the apps they use every day.
In addition, Project Cortex enables business process efficiency by turning your content into an interactive knowledge repository—with innovations in smart content ingestion—to analyze documents and extract metadata to create sophisticated content models; machine teaching, to allow subject matter experts to teach the system how to understand semi-structured content; and knowledge retrieval, to make it easy for people to access the valuable knowledge that’s so often locked away in documents, conversations, meetings, and videos. Building on the content you already have in SharePoint, Project Cortex connects content across Microsoft 365 and external systems and enables you to manage information and streamline processes with built-in security, compliance, and workflow.”
Project Cortex can also connect to content in third-party repositories and systems using the new Microsoft Search connectors (see above).
When writing these words, Project Cortex is in private beta. Once rolled out to everyone, it will be a premium feature in Office 365. I believe, with its AI and machine teaching features, Project Cortex will help us, human beings, to do our jobs better. Combine this with all the information architecture options we have in Office 365, add Microsoft Search, which is also promising – and you can see a really promising feature here. It’ll take a while, and probably we’ll see some bumps on the road, but hopefully, it’ll be beneficial for all Office 365 users.
The expectations are high, Microsoft set the bar very high with the promise of Project Cortex. One thing to keep in mind: Knowledge does not organize itself. Storing, organizing, curating, and managing knowledge needs and will always need intense human involvement, even with powerful tools like Project Cortex.