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Optimizing Office 365 Search Is a Guessing Game

5 minute read
Martin White avatar
So much of what happens in Office 365 search takes place in a black box, which offers little to no insight or access into the mechanisms of search.

At the recent IntraTeam Event in Copenhagen I spent quite a lot of time listening to presentations about Office 365 and its capabilities and talking to delegates who use it. My focus, of course, was on Office 365 search functionality. As the conference progressed it became increasingly clear that the people shaping the perceptions about the functionality and usability of Office 365 search were unaware of current good practice in enterprise search. There was no sense of "it can do this, but not that," which inadvertently created the view that Office 365 search can meet all business and user requirements.

Office 365 vs. The Rest

At least 30 commercial and open-source applications have a substantially wider range of features than Office 365. Let's call them "The Rest." That group doesn't even count all of the intranet product vendors that have invested in very sophisticated search offerings. Oak Software is a good example of a small company seeing the value of search in an intranet solution. At the other end of the scale, AstraZeneca has implemented a single point of access to not only internal but also external information using Sinequa. You can find a list of vendors in Search Insights 2019.

On the flight back to London I came up with a list of more than a dozen features which form the foundation of enterprise-wide search, none of which Office 365 is currently capable of delivering. Some of these relate to the ability to customize the modern user interface (such as snippet length) and the intuitive presentation of content from multiple repositories and languages. Then there is a vast array of natural language processing applications. 

Part of the issue here is that so much of what happens in Office 365 search takes place in a "black box," which offers little to no insight (or access) into the mechanisms which provide the foundation of good search: ranking models, reporting, database access and more.  

A good way to compare Office 365's capabilities to The Rest is to browse through the text analytics pages on the Basis Technology site or on the Apache Solr site. Most of The Rest are offering at least 80 percent, if not more of these applications.

Related Article: Diagnosing Enterprise Search Failures

Microsoft and Finding Information

Microsoft's standard answer to questions about Office 365 search is to say that it is all on the roadmap. It was clear from the comments at IntraTeam that the management of tracking and implementing this roadmap is challenging.

Search is all about interaction with the software and even quite small changes to a user interface or to some underlying search routine can be a challenge for the user to adapt to and for the search team to support. With Office 365, there is little advance warning and the roadmap is far from clear. This is one area where working with The Rest is significantly different. For The Rest, it is standard practice to signal every enhancement well in advance, and to develop support plans for each customer, with the technical support and development teams just a phone call away.

Learning Opportunities

In the same way that Google is not in the search business (its revenues come from advertising) so Microsoft is not in the office software products business. The focus on the delivery of cloud services will see Azure playing an increasingly important role in service delivery. It is for this reason that the recent announcement by Amazon Web Services about its commitment to the open source Elasticsearch community is especially interesting as Azure also offers Elasticsearch, and AWS and Microsoft are head-to-head competitors.

A challenge with search is that computationally it is quite resource-intensive, especially in crawling and rebuilding indexes. Everything that Microsoft delivers is focused on reducing the computational power required. This is the rationale behind continuous crawling, using knowledge graph and (as just one example) no NLP-based named entity extraction at indexing time. (Cut and paste this column into the Cogito demo and prepare to be amazed.) It is interesting to note that in the official description of Microsoft Graph the word "search" is completely missing. The description includes references to finding information, but this is all about "the now." How does this technology help locate information created several years ago and now needed to respond to a customer opportunity or complaint?

Related Article: 6 Mistakes to Avoid With Microsoft's Hybrid Search

Does Office 365 Search Deliver Against Business Objectives?

The process of optimizing Office 365 search should not be equated to the automatic implementation of all the new features that Microsoft delivers. Because no business ever conducts user search requirements research prior to the move to Office 365, now is the time to go back to both your users and the business and understand what information is needed to achieve the objectives of the business. You will notice that the Microsoft marketing focuses on enhancing the performance of the individual and not the business.

With a clear statement of individual and business requirements you can strive to optimize the functionality available to meet these requirements as best you can, which will almost certainly require substantially more training and support than you are currently delivering. Possibly Office 365 could deliver against most of these requirements, but are you certain? You will at least be in a position to decide whether to explore what The Rest can offer you. This might not be as a replacement, but rather as an enterprise-wide complement to your Office 365 investment, which delivers the search solution your organization needs to meet longer-term business objectives. If you go this route, make sure to get a vendor-independent perspective of the options.

About the author

Martin White

Martin White is Managing Director of Intranet Focus, Ltd. and is based in Horsham, UK. An information scientist by profession, he has been involved in information retrieval and search for nearly four decades as a consultant, author and columnist.

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