Users who install or update Office 365 Pro Plus, part of the Office 365 subscription for larger businesses, will find their browser search engine automatically set to Bing, according to Microsoft documentation.
"Starting with Version 2002 of Office 365 ProPlus, an extension for Microsoft Search in Bing will be installed that makes Bing the default search engine for the Google Chrome web browser,” says the admin guide.
"This extension will be installed with new installations of Office 365 ProPlus or when existing installations of Office 365 ProPlus are updated. If Bing is already the default search engine, the extension doesn't get installed."
Office 365 Pro Plus is the version that comes with the Office 365 Enterprise plans, such as E1, E3 and E5. The plans aimed at smaller businesses (up to a maximum of 300 users), such as Business and Business Premium, are not affected by this change, nor are the consumer Office plans.
Only the Chrome browser is mentioned in the tech note, but “support for the Firefox web browser is planned for a later date,” it states. For what it's worth, the aforementioned version 2002 is due out mid-February.
The given reason for this aggressive approach is in order to support “Microsoft search in Bing”, which integrates search across internal files, SharePoint, OneDrive, Teams and Yammer with general internet search.
According to the docs, search results will be contextual and personalized, using “insights form the Microsoft Graph” to increase relevance. The Microsoft Graph is in effect all the business data in an Office 365 tenancy along with APIs for accessing and analysing it.
Admins can enhance this search functionality by connecting to external content with Graph Connectors, customizing the search page, and creating bookmarks. All results are subject to the user having appropriate permissions and Microsoft says both privacy and security are respected. So that's all right then.
Organizational search that works is an ambitious goal with great potential, though Microsoft’s track record with search in Windows is not great. Still, with all that cloud and AI goodness sprinkled in, perhaps it will deliver this time around.
This will not work in the browser though if users have a search engine other than Bing set as their default. According to Statcounter, Google has about 92% global market share, and Bing just 2.3%, so it is a problem.
Microsoft’s answer, it seems, is to make users change to Bing whether they like it or not. In a template email included in the Microsoft Search in Bing Adoption Kit, users are advised:
“Starting <insert timeframe>, if you use Chrome and Firefox you will notice a change to your web browser’s default search engine – it will now be set to Bing, if it wasn’t already … We are changing the default search engine in our company to deploy Microsoft Search. You’ll be able to search for work results from your browser’s address bar or in Bing.com after signing in with your work account. By doing this, we will all save time searching for the content we need every day.”
That is the pitch: but is it reasonable to change browser search defaults without specific user consent? This is in a work context where administrators can determine organisation policy, but such is Microsoft’s enthusiasm for its new search that even admins have to take specific action to stop this from happening.
Installing one application that changes the behaviour of another application is a practice reminiscent of adware or other unsavoury software, rather than what is expected from the world’s best-known productivity suite.
Feedback on the document so far is not positive. “Are you out of your minds?”, “Unacceptable”, “Horrible idea”, “Browser Hijack?” – you get the picture.
Presuming Microsoft is not swayed by such reactions into changing its approach, administrators who feel the benefits of Microsoft Search might not justify the means can take steps to prevent it.
“If you don’t want Bing to be made the default search engine, you can exclude the extension from being installed by using the Office Deployment Tool or by using Group Policy," the docs state. "There are also ways to exclude the extension from being installed if you’re using Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager (current branch) or Microsoft Intune.”
The Office 365 Client Installation Wizard in Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager (part of System Center) has an option to turn off the feature.
The risk for Microsoft is that pushback against enforced changes will be such that fewer organisations will want to give the new Search feature a proper trial. ®