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Bing for Business: Is this the future — or the past?

Late last year, I wrote an article in which I pondered the question of whether technology might be becoming cyclical. While there is little chance that the world will ever revert to using Commodore 64 computers or 8-track tapes, some of the similarities between old and new technology are uncanny. Then at Microsoft Ignite in September, I saw yet another example of an old technology that is seemingly making a comeback in a new and improved kind of way. I’m talking about Microsoft’s recently announced Bing for Business.

So what is the tie into the past? Back in the mid-1990s, the Internet was a very different place. Streaming video was just an experiment, Internet trolls were not a thing yet, and Google was not the dominant Internet search provider. At that time, my search engine of choice was something called Alta Vista, but it was only one of many different search engines that were competing for relevance in the rapidly evolving digital world.

The thing that made this situation so unique was that each of the major search providers tried to establish some sort of niche. For example, one search provider might have been better for looking up people, while another search engine might have been a better choice if you were trying to locate a business, download music, or find a restaurant review. The bottom line is that general purpose Internet search engines were so new that none of the search providers did a good job with providing results for every type of search.

Microsoft

Eventually, someone came out with a really great tool that vastly improved the Web search experience. Being that this was over 20 years ago, I can’t remember the name of the product or who made it (although it might have been Symantec). At any rate, the tool was a desktop search engine. This search engine consisted of a lightweight application that was installed locally onto a PC. When run, the application displayed a simple search box within the Windows taskbar (sound familiar?).

Whenever someone would enter a query into the search box, the search engine would query the Windows index to see if there were local files on the PC that matched the query. It would also send the query to about a dozen different Internet search engines. Upon receiving the results, the software would remove the duplicates and then display the unique results according to relevance. In other words, this tool made Internet searches far more efficient by using all of the major search engines at the same time.

Bing for Business: Marketing ploy or real tool?

So what does any of this have to do with today’s world? Well, at Microsoft Ignite, Microsoft announced Bing for Business. Now I have to confess that I didn’t initially pay all that much attention to Bing for Business because I dismissed it as a marketing ploy. Recently, Microsoft has been appending the phrase “for business” to many of its product names, and I assumed that Bing was the latest casualty of a marketing campaign run amok. When I actually started looking at Bing for Business in a more objective manner, however, I began to realize that it could prove to be a very useful tool.

Like my desktop search tool from so long ago, Bing for Business is designed to search enterprise data and Internet data simultaneously, and reveal the information that seems to be the most relevant to the user who performed the search. I’m not talking about something as simple as searching for the existence of keywords within a collection of files (Windows and SharePoint have had that ability for many years). Instead, I am talking about advanced queries that target line of business systems. Some of the example queries that I have heard mentioned are things like:

• What has my coworker been working on?
• How much vacation time do I have left?
• What is the company’s policy on sick days?
• How do I request time off?

Each of these queries requires detailed knowledge of, and interaction with, the organization’s business systems. As previously noted, however, Bing for Business is designed to provide a variety of information types.

For starters, Bing for Business is able to learn the company’s organizational chart structure and to provide information based on that knowledge. For example, you might be able to ask who a particular employee’s manager is.

Of course, people searches are not limited to the organizational chart. When a user searches on someone’s name, the search engine can provide information such as their contact information, position, the projects and documents that they have been working on recently (assuming that the searcher has permission to see those resources), and possibly even a map showing how to navigate the building to get to that person’s office.

Designed with Office 365 in mind

This brings up another point. Building and floor plan searches are actually a part of Bing for Business. If properly provisioned, the search engine can help employees find the physical location of the break room, the HR department, or whatever else a user might need to locate.

On top of all of these features and abilities, Bing for Business is designed with deep Office 365 integration and will be able to search Office 365 groups, SharePoint documents, and similar resources. Administrators will also be able to fine-tune the search engine by defining bookmarks and search triggers that point to specific types of information.

Although Bing for Business is primarily designed to be an enterprise search engine, it is also able to return Internet-based results for whatever a user might be searching on. The search engine’s goal is to surface the most relevant information based on the user’s query and on Bing’s knowledge of that user, regardless of where the information is actually located.

For now, Bing for Business is in private preview, but Microsoft will soon be making it available to organizations that have an Office 365 Enterprise subscription.