Microsoft Soups Up Office Online with Contextual Search

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No one likes dumb anything, least of all technology companies. In a move to smarten-up Hangouts, Google added "smart" suggestions yesterday. Microsoft is on the case as well, making its Office Online app a lot smarter with the addition of contextualized Bing search into documents.

If that sounds complicated, it’s not. The new feature, called Insights for Office, lets users search for information from an inline search box inside a document. The answers include information scraped from Bing Snapshot, Bing Image Search and Wikipedia, among others.

Contextualized Search

These searches deliver information that is contextualized in relation to the contents of the document. In the blog post introducing Insights, an example is provided: 

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Missouri State

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Missouri River

Depending on which Missouri you select, Insights for Office recognizes the difference between the state and the river.

The contextual search, which effectively embeds Bing into documents, is being rolled-out worldwide wherever Bing is available. Users interested in accessing this functionality don’t have to do anything, as this is for Word Online only. For those users, it will be accessible as soon as Microsoft makes it available in your region.

Updating Office Online

The addition of this kind of search, along with a number of previously added and promised upgrades for Office Online, is striking for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it is not being made available to Office 365 and is not included in the Office 365 roadmap.

It also appears to underline Microsoft’s commitment to developing the online and free versions of its Office apps. When Microsoft rebranded these apps in February this year it had all the hallmarks of a PR exercise. Office 365, going on developments over the past 12 months, was and is really where Microsoft is at in the productivity space. 

This update doesn’t necessarily refute this, but does show a level of commitment to the Office apps online development. 

No word in yesterday’s announcement whether the contextualized Bing functionality will be added to other Office apps. Insights will not be available for Word 2013, and its unclear whether locally installed versions of Office will receive the functionality. 

Insights For Office

For those working with Word Online, accessing and using Insights will reportedly be easy. According to the blog post:

To get Insights, right-click on a word you want (or select one or more words) to know more about and select Insights from the menu (or select Insights under the Review tab on the ribbon).

We’ve also seen that our user’s type into the Tell Me box to find more information, so naturally, we added Insights through Tell Me as well -- just type what you are looking for and Office Online will get you the right insights."

Bing indexes and stores entity data from around the web representing real world people, places and things. Insights for Office uses Bing’s ability to index the world’s knowledge and Microsoft’s machine learning models to semantically understand the most important content in a user’s document.

This capability comes from patterns of text analysis developed in collaboration with Microsoft Research. The results deliver the most relevant web links, images, and other content for a given request in the form of entity cards.

No PDF Editor Required

If Insights is the really big news to come out of yesterday’s announcement, a number of other improvements to Office online will be useful, particularly for anyone that spends a lot of time working with documents.

Of particular note -- and this is personal opinion -- are the upgrades to PDF management and editing. If you regularly have to take images or information from PDF documents, the updates promise to make it easier to do so without having to invest in a PDF editor.

This is done by converting PDFs into an editable Word document by clicking the EDIT IN WORD button. From there you can edit the document in your web browser or in any other Word client you prefer.

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The update includes more features, including easier pagination, an advanced Tell Me function and symbol insertion. All minor additions, but combined can simplify document editing.

The best part is the price tag. As long as you have a Microsoft account -- including simple Outlook.com email accounts -- the features are free.

Title image by kittyz202 (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC 2.0 license