How Word uses Bing to tell you more about your writing

Next time you make a bad typo and Word knows what you want to say, thank web search.

Should your business choose Microsoft Office 365 as its productivity suite? Google's G Suite isn't the only cloud-based office software suite. Microsoft's Office 365 takes Word, Excel, Outlook, and more into the cloud.

Google pointed to the 100 consecutive months of Bing market share growth to suggest to the EU that the search engine market isn't a one-horse race, while Bing Ads puts its half-million advertisers in front of half a billion users. In the UK, Bing has 25% market share.

But for Microsoft, Bing is actually an AI powerhouse with other Microsoft products leveraging the technology it develops (which is the real reason why Microsoft was never going to get rid of its search engine, even when its market share didn't look promising). "Bing is an unsung hero," corporate VP for search products and service Jordi Ribas told TechRepublic recently: "You often don't know that all this API work in Azure Cognitive Services is powered by Bing. In Windows and Office, you'll find Bing is embedded and powering a lot of the experience. The most advanced deep learning technology starts here, and then we bring it to other places in the company."

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The Researcher pane in Word tells you that it is powered by Bing.

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

Word is one of those places where more and more AI that started in Bing is showing up. It's pretty obvious that the Researcher feature uses the Bing Knowledge Graph to go and look up content from the web that you can insert into your document with a citation (it actually says Bing next to the search box). Smart Lookup is even more obvious: right-click on a word or phrase to search the web with Bing and the Word Help system at the same time. Again, this uses the Knowledge Graph to try and find the entity you're looking up, on the assumption that you're referring to a fairly well-known person, place or thing, and you get previews of the content rather than just links.

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Smart Lookup is just a Bing search.

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

The new Search box at the top of Word and other Office applications is Microsoft Search, which is a dedicated version of Bing especially for Office. "We've literally taken the Bing technology and some of the Bing people and put this into what we used to call the Exchange fabric", Office 365 corporate vice president Jeff Teper explained at Build this year.

Enterprise search has always been harder than web search because you don't have the same collaborative signals for your company's documents as for public web pages: millions of people searching for the lyrics of the new Taylor Swift song is a much stronger signal than the handful of people who've searched for your organisation's policies on recommending family members for a job. The connections between people and documents in the Microsoft Graph makes it easier for the machine learning that powers Bing to find relevant documents, which is why Microsoft Search is now everywhere in Office. However, it does slightly different things in different places.

In Word, it's called the Tell Me box, and it finds commands first -- it's easier to type 'research' into the box than to find the Researcher icon on the References tab of the Word ribbon -- followed by instances of the word in the current document. If neither of those are what you want, you can click to run a Smart Lookup search. If you're looking for a document you've been working on, use the Search box on the File menu instead.

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Search in Outlook uses Bing technology, but it hasn't yet moved across to Microsoft Search. The way that Outlook finds useful information in your email -- like parcel delivery notifications, flight bookings and commitments that you've made to people that it can remind you about -- also runs on the Bing platform. The LinkedIn profile on someone's contact card in Outlook uses Bing to find the right person and retrieve their details (a quick way of checking exactly who has emailed you asking for something).

If you look at your documents in the business version of OneDrive, that's Microsoft Search and it includes handy features like searching the text in photos; if you're searching for them on consumer OneDrive, that's Bing Search -- and Bing also runs people search in Skype and all the search in Microsoft Teams.

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Thanks to Bing, Word can now help you with spelling mistakes when two words are joined together.

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

How does the web spell that?

Other Word features are less visibly about search but still use Bing. You might not notice that the Editor spell checker, which replaced the previous Office spell checking tool in 2016, is based on the work that Bing does looking at how words are used and spelled on websites, unless you're a developer working with the Bing Search APIs in Azure Cognitive Services. The Bing Spell Check API can check and correct the spelling of a search term, the same way that Bing does when it automatically searches for what the contents of web pages make it likely is the 'correct' spelling, instead of the exact letters you typed in.

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If you're looking for something very new or unusual, that correction might not be helpful, but it's more useful for words where the spelling doesn't change often. Word doesn't use the exact same API that developers can build into their applications, but it's a very similar system based on the Bing technology, combined with some of the standard spell checking technology from Office. That means if you type a word that's correctly spelled but not in the Word spelling dictionary, if Editor can find it high enough up in the Bing results to class it as common, you won't get the red squiggle complaining that the word's wrong.

And when you do spell something wrong, or more likely mistype it because you're in a hurry, the list of suggestions for what you meant to type is often a lot better than it used to be -- especially for longer words, more egregious mis-spellings and when you make a mistake in the word and also don't hit the spacebar hard enough so you end up with two words joined together and mistakes in both. In the past, if you hit too many of the wrong keys when typing in a hurry, Word's spelling checker would just give up. These days, it's much more helpful. If you can find the right word on the Editor menu, that's at least in part thanks to people hitting the wrong keys when they were searching on Bing.

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