Microsoft Search: The Past, Present and Future

March 11, 2020

Even at the CollabSummit last year, the confusion caused by “classic” and “modern” search experiences in Office 365 was still strong. The announcement of Microsoft Search was new, and we had a promising vision but the reality of Microsoft Search was still quite poor. During our full-day workshop and sessions at the conference, Matthew McDermott and I had to communicate that although the vision was promising, we’d recommend to keep using “classic” search and wait until Microsoft Search would get better and richer.

Of course, lots has happened in the past year. Microsoft Search has evolved, and it’s time to do a review again, as well as to take a look at the roadmap – and to discuss what we can expect in the upcoming year and beyond.

Microsoft Search today

As of today (early 2020), we still have two out-of-the-box search options in Office 365, with an additional third one:

  • “Classic” Search;
  • Microsoft Search (“Modern” Search);
  • PnP Modern Search web parts.

Let’s take a brief look at 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 has invested into its customizing it over the decade, and they’re not ready to move on (yet). The benefits of “Classic” Search today are:

  • 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 into “Modern” Search (see below). Also, Microsoft have made it clear that there won’t be any further updates or enhancements in the future. “Classic” search is definitely legacy now, 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 from 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:

  • Bookmarks
  • Q&A
  • Acronyms (being rolled out)
  • Locations
  • 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. Here are a few significant updates and their Feature IDs at the time of writing (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 with 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 how the SharePoint PnP Community comes into the picture. The SharePoint Development Community (also known as the SharePoint PnP community) is an open-source initiative coordinated by SharePoint engineering. 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 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;
  • Synonyms;
  • 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.

Summary

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, I’m confident there will be a lot to share at the CollabSummit this year again. I’m already looking forward to it!

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