RealTime IT News

A New Face For Live Search

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- For now, Microsoft is ceding the race for dominance in Internet search to the space's 800-pound gorilla, Google, so it can focus on improving the experience for its existing users.

At its Searchification event, held Wednesday at Microsoft's Silicon Valley Campus, executives briefed analysts, reporters and advertisers on changes to its core search technology.

To kick things off, Brad Goldberg, who manages the search team, said Microsoft plans to get growth in search not from grabbing share from Google or runner-up Yahoo, but from getting current users to spend more time with the product.

Goldberg told attendees, "We have almost 70 million people who use Live Search every month," a figure he acknowledged was surprising and translates to only an 11 percent share of total searches. "If we can do a better job of delighting those customers and meeting their needs, we can gain share," he said.

Goldberg wasn't kidding about the transparency. The first piece of information shared by Satya Nadella, corporate vice president of the search and advertising platform group, was that a full 46 percent of users were not satisfied with Live Search and 91 percent of that group had issues with the relevance of the search results.

That dissatisfaction was spread fairly equally between the way search results were ranked (32 percent), a lack of important items in the index (28 percent) and the inability of the search algorithm to understand the searcher's intent (25 percent).

While Microsoft has been continuously improving the product, it will now release major updates every six months. Wednesday's release is anchored by a significant update to the index and relevance features, according to Nadella.

"Search as content is a trend that's going to increase, and we're pushing the envelope," Nadella said.

The new Live Search may respond to a query by launching one of several vertical search products: video, local, image, products and health. Each of these turns results into content portals on the fly. Going beyond lists of links and the multimedia results -- a feature now included in regular Web searches from rivals Google, Yahoo and Ask -- these Live Search verticals may feature specific kinds of content, some of it generated automatically by the search application itself.

This new feature is most prominent in the shopping and health verticals. For example, Microsoft answers a product search with a full-blown comparison site called Product Answers. A search for "digital camera" returns product images for the four most popular models, along with ratings, guides, reviews and links to merchants with their prices.

Clicking on one of the most popular items then produces a page that includes a Live Search-generated summary of user feedback for specific product features, such as ergonomics or battery life. Live Search aggregates these ratings from review sites crawled by the search engine.

Live Search
Click for a full shot of Live Search product results

Nadella contrasted this to Google's results for "digital camera," which only returned one product result.

Additionally, Microsoft believes it's second only to MapQuest in online maps usage. A new plan to partner with major commercial Web sites like those run by FedEx or Hyatt Hotels will provide distribution for Live Search and feed geographic data back into the product to improve it.

Local searches now include photos of the destination; a "streetscape" view when available; a "click-to-call" feature in some cases; and related information, like reviews, aggregated from third parties.

Microsoft is also hoping that little things can mean a lot to its users. When a user asks for driving directions from a ZIP code or city, rather than from an address, the application makes it simpler to print directions on a single page.

It does this by default, hiding (often unnecessary) turn-by-turn street directions out of the ZIP code or city center, and beginning instead with the route's first highway or major road.

The directions also include major landmarks and highlight both the intersection before the destination and the street immediately after -- so a driver will know if they've gone too far.