Ever since web search became useful enough to reliably find what you were looking for online, businesses and employees have been asking why finding documents and information inside your own organization can’t be that easy.

The problem is that a search engine is more than just an index of what’s inside documents, which is straightforward enough to build. The results also need to be ranked, so that you get useful rather than irrelevant documents, and the system needs to understand what the searcher is really looking for. If it understands that you’re searching for a person, or a department, or a cafeteria menu, an unstructured query becomes more like searching a database with fields such as ‘job title’.

Search engines do that by analysing multiple signals, including the behaviour of millions of users doing millions of queries. Even whether someone clicks on the ads that the search engine thought were relevant to the query is useful feedback for the ranking. That scale just isn’t there for individual businesses (which is why systems like the Google Search Appliance were never as effective as normal web search).

Along with Yahoo, Bing pioneered using machine learning to do that ranking and the same techniques are built into the Azure Search service for building custom search engines. But most organizations don’t want to build their own search system, so Microsoft brought out first Bing for Business and then the more ambitious Microsoft Search service as part of Office 365, using the Office Graph to understand the connections between people in the business, rather than just the content of Office files.

Bing for Business inserted company-specific search results into the Bing site and Microsoft Search does the same once you enable it for your tenant from the Office 365 admin portal; it’s under Settings / Services & add-ins / Microsoft Search in Bing / Activate Microsoft Search in Bing. Click ‘Get started’ to open the Quick Setup wizard and turn off any Microsoft services you don’t want search to use under ‘Connected services’. The wizard also lets you choose the site colour and upload your own logo, as well as setting the company email address you want users to send feedback to and creating some sample searches for employees like ‘My Documents’.

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Once you enable Microsoft Search for your tenant, users will see a bar prompting them to sign in with their business account on Bing to see results. In some cases, they may find themselves automatically signed in with that account. This shouldn’t affect Bing services like earning points with Bing Rewards, but the option to switch back to their Microsoft account for the Bing site doesn’t always work well, so search admins should expect to get some feedback about that.

Some information will appear in bing.com/business automatically once the service is enabled. Search for another employee and you’ll see the details that Azure Active Directory has about them in the company address book, like what office they work in, what Groups they’re part of, where they are in the org chart and what files they’ve shared with you though Office 365. You can find documents stored in SharePoint and OneDrive for Business as long as you have the access rights to see them — and you’ll get the same results if you go to the Microsoft Search page or search from the new Office app, or the mobile SharePoint app, or the new search box at the top of the Office desktop applications.

If you search from an application like Word you might get results that include how to use features in the program, and Word documents will come higher up the list than the PowerPoint presentation you were working on last week. But the idea is that you can get to everything you need to search for, from wherever you are.

In the future, administrators will also get access to connectors for third-party applications and there will be APIs to add more extensibility, although those are still in development (and the Microsoft Search service itself is still in preview).

Customise your search

Other information will be easier to find if your business puts it into Microsoft Search specifically through the admin portal.

You don’t have to be an admin to do everything; the editor role lets you add bookmarks to internal and external web pages that you want to have appear at the top of search results. Search comes with some of these pre-populated to take users to key Office properties like the Office client download and Outlook online. Oddly, that doesn’t include a search for the Edge and Chrome extensions to make it easier to use Microsoft Search from your browser.

When you create a bookmark, you choose the URL and the search terms that will find it. If you really want to prioritise it, you can reserve a keyword so this link will always be at the top of the list. You can fine tune that by setting who it applies to and when. You can make something the top result for a limited time, if you have a company charity drive or you need people to return a form by a specific date. Or you can pick specific countries, groups or device types where it’s relevant — so if you have a mobile version of an internal tool that only works on iOS in the US, you can have it show up as a top result for users on iOS device in the US and no-one else. Targeted variations make that easier to manage; if you have multilingual versions of your HR site, or apps for different platforms, you can add the URLs for variations by device or location or both.

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PowerApps will also be able to show information from the app right in search results as a widget. So if you have a company tool for booking time off, you can create a bookmark to make sure it’s the first result for searches like ‘time off’ and ‘request holiday’. Add the PowerApp to the bookmark and the results can show, say, how many vacation days the employee doing the search has left. To add a PowerApp, you need its App ID (which you can get from the Details pane for the app on the PowerApps site).

You might want to showcase some of your own bookmarks as the suggested queries that Search shows to users. If you have Best Bets set up in SharePoint for recommended results, you can import those in bulk as bookmarks from the Tools section of the portal using an online tool or a PowerShell script. There are also Edge and Chrome extensions to make it easy to save sites you visit as bookmarks.

You can also add Q&A — tips with answers to frequent questions, which you can import in bulk if you have an FAQ section in the company handbook or on your HR site — and location information for your various company buildings. This shows both the address and a map, so it’s worth taking the time to drag the pushpins to make sure they’re in the most helpful place — like the reception for a large office building or the receiving office for a warehouse with several entrances.

So far, Microsoft Search is a slightly barebones experience on top of the existing Office 365 and Bing for Business features, although if you’re already using PowerApps you can create a very rich environment for users quite quickly.

In the longer term, Microsoft promises more AI powering Microsoft Search to look into company documents and answer questions the way Power BI can for data sets. If you have an HR policy on employing family members, Microsoft Search ought to be able to combine that with details about job roles and responsibilities so that when someone types in a question like “Can my brother work for me at my company?” they get the appropriate and legal response even if the word brother isn’t anywhere in the HR policy document.