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MSN Fights For Google Search Share

Microsoft Thursday launched the latest beta of its MSN custom search technology with an index of 5 billion documents. The night before, archrival Google peremptorily upped its own index from 4.28 billion to 8 billion documents. And though Yahoo Search doesn't divulge the size of its index, it says it's comparable to the others.

This information spawned much geek talk about how the different search engines count docs and pages. But relevancy is only one facet of the search game that competitors need to consider as they vie for users.

With the search engine landscape already well established, MSN has a rough task before it. Will the budding search engine be able to forge its own niche in search?

Experts say search engines must focus on the following factors if they have any chance of pleasing their users:

Start Your Search Engines
Index Size can matter, and the sheer number of documents catalogued and available as search results can put an engine in the lead.
Relevance But size won't matter unless the engine succeeds in helping searchers find what they need...quickly.
Features The engines are piling on such extras as the ability to search databases or request special kinds of results. But features can also get in the way of a little thing called usability.
Usability The ease with which users understand and navigate the search tools. This part should be easy.

Relevancy Rules

Although size matters some, search experts agree it doesn't matter a whole lot in this case.

"If I'm looking for the Oakland Raiders home page, it's one page. I don't need a million documents in the index to find it," said Daniel Read, vice president of product management for Ask Jeeves .

"The vast majority of search engines throughout the Web have a great user interface, are fast and provide easy-to-use sites," he continued. "Relevance is one of the biggest areas of differentiation."

Chris Sherman, editor of SearchDay, another Jupitermedia site, said that an index needs enough mass to find results that actually are meaningful. The downside to that, however, is the larger the index, the more difficult it is for the engine to determine what will be the most relevant results.

Sherman said MSN needs to work harder on relevance. "The goal is to find the sweet spot between enough information and relevance," he added.

Full-Featured and Usable?

Bells and whistles, though fun to look at and use every once in a great while, can potentially muddy an engine's chances of pulling ahead in the search competition. Independent technology consultant Steven Horen said that fighting a feature war can only take search engines so far.

"Like most software solutions that preceded them, it's not always the best mousetrap that wins," said Horen, a former technology stock analyst. Google took the lead in the early days of search because it provided better results in a clean layout, and did so when others were abandoning the space. Inertia plays a bigger part today.

MSN Search includes a bevy of buttons, drop-down menus and sliders to help searchers refine results. But it's not clear to experts that many searchers even care about advanced query techniques, no matter how simplified.

"Users are notoriously very lazy," said usability expert Jakob Nielsen, a principal of Nielsen/Norman Group. "They don't want to go to page two; they don't even want to scroll. The average behavior is to type two or three terms [into the query box], look at what's visible and click on those links."

Nielsen said that Google rose to the top at a time when other search services had piled on content and features in the rush to become portals.

"They were very cluttered. Google had the opposite approach -- very lean and cut back and very good at prioritizing. Those are the two reasons for its big success," he said.

Nielsen compared Google to A9, the search service from Amazon.com , which combines Google's search technology with proprietary features, such as personalization, Search Inside the Book and results from different sources appearing in multiple columns.

"A9 has a variety of extra features, so you would think it must be better than Google," he said. "But it's worse."

A9 is about one second slower in returning results, a period that seems a lot longer, according to Nielsen.

"Speed is a very important part of usability."

Where the Money Is

Search isn't just a public service. The real juice is the ad money in paid search. According to JupiterResearch, paid search will continue to grow faster than any other sector of online advertising, increasing from $2.6 billion in 2004 to $5.5 billion in 2009.

But the value of a search service lies in more than just unique visitors being served ads. JupiterResearch ranks the search engines in terms of a CORE index.

The index considers the number of unique visitors, days they visit and pages they see. It also takes into account whether those visitors use other search engines, and how good the search service is in steering users toward shopping. (Jupiter Research and internetnews.com are owned by the same corporation.)

Although Yahoo Search was first in terms of unique visitors, Google ranked first in the CORE index, with a score of 100, and MSN Search finished second with 92.10. It also finished second in terms of unique visitors. Yahoo Search ranked third with a CORE index score of 80.4.

Meta Group analyst Timothy Hickernell said MSN is competing in a strong market for search advertising, which is driven by Google and Yahoo. The MSN Search beta will display a mix of ads from its own, as well as Overture's, network. MSN will have to convince advertisers that it offers something different.

"If the same two companies control the primary two networks for search engine advertising," Hickernell asks, "is there any difference among the services? Microsoft, AOL and Amazon.com would certainly like you to believe there absolutely is."

He said MSN will definitely leverage the buzz about its new search and its future enhancements to build up its own advertising network.

Can You Change for Us?

The question of change and users' dislike of it will hound the MSN network as it attempts to gain footing on the search turf.

"There's huge inertia," Nielsen said. "Once something is bookmarked and you're used to using something, you definitely tend to stay with that. People don't like change."

As the newcomer, MSN will have to contend with users' habits and try to avoid the "stickiness" that familiarity breeds.

"It's still the case with this, as with any software, that familiarity has a lot of power," Horen said. "Familiar patterns of use and a familiar user interface do absolutely create stickiness."

It's no secret that MSN will have to offer something that the others don't have because of its late entry.

And SearchDay's Sherman added, "MSN still will have to perform and be clearly superior to Google. If it's not, why should people change their habits?"

Still, none of these experts was willing to count Microsoft out.

"With Microsoft's entry, we may see another cycle where features, functionality and performance shakes things up again," said Horen. "It feels like there's another cycle of competition emerging. I don't think Google is so easily dethroned, but it's going to get really interesting."

And Nielsen warned Microsoft to get its act together.

"It's a big mistake to believe the deal is done," he said. "But the market is relatively slow to change, and it will only happen if, in fact, the new search engine adds substantial extra value. Being the same [as the others] and running a big advertising campaign won't do it."