RealTime IT News

MSN's Latest Search Beta Launched

Microsoft's MSN released the latest version of its homegrown search technology on Thursday (beta.search.msn.com), offering multiple ways to narrow results, including providing local results and natural language search.

"We have a number of unique offerings that will intrigue people and win over the MSN.com user base," said Justin Osmer, product manager for MSN search.

MSN's latest version of its custom search technology, which first previewed in beta in the summer, is still a work in progress. MSN's searchbots began crawling the Web in July, building a unique index.

This version went live with an index of 5 billion pages. (Not coincidentally, archrival Google informally announced on Wednesday that it had upped its own index from 4.28 billion to 8 billion pages, thanks to improvements in its Web crawling technology.)

The latest iteration of MSN Search is expected to move away from the spare interface by adding buttons, tabs and pull-downs in an attempt to encourage searchers to go beyond the typical one- to -three-word query, thereby getting more relevant results near the top.

MSN said Search Builder lets searchers narrow the search by clicking on a series of buttons. They can exclude terms or domains, limit the search to a particular domain, limit by country or language, or request only results that link to a particular URL.

"The technology puts more control in the hands of the average user," Osmer said, meaning those who normally won't use Advanced Search options. "We want to try to introduce more customers to this function," he said, "so we tried to make it easier to build more complex queries."

Advanced searchers can take advantage of three sliders that let them fine-tune the rankings of results. They can increase or decrease the influence of popularity, freshness and exactitude, as well as their relative weights, by twiddling with the slider controls.

But Jakob Nielsen, principal of the usability concern Nielsen Norman Group, said that on mainstream search sites, such tools are not an advantage. "So far, a lot of search engines have experimented with these tools, and so far we haven't been successful at getting people to use them and use them well."

Some of the features are similar to what other search providers have introduced.

For example, users can ask a direct question, such as "What is the capital of Michigan?" MSN's Direct Answers feature pulls from its Encarta online encyclopedia, a dictionary and a calculator. Direct Answers are returned at the top of the list of natural search results. This is a feature highlighted by rival Ask Jeeves' in its Smart Search.

A Search Near Me feature provides information and resources close to the user's location. MSN's index metadata includes geotags for all documents, Osmer said, which is matched with either the zip code input by the searcher or the IP address of the machine being used. Down the road, the NearMe feature might become more directory-focused, allowing searches of nearby businesses or destinations.

Google launched a local search beta in March 2004. Both Yahoo and Ask Jeeves followed with local search results in August 2004. Yahoo Local Search pulls from the Yellow Pages, maps, third party- and user-generated content. Ask Jeeves licenses content from Citysearch and other third-party providers.

Search tabs for news, images and Web are integrated into the latest search interface, appearing above the query box -- just as on Google.com and Yahoo Search.

The MSN team also sprinkled some e-commerce into search. When a searcher types the name of an artist, song or album into the query box, results include links to music and content from MSN Music, where they can sample it and buy a download.

"Music is one of most popular search query terms and categories, so it made sense to offer direct action in the results," Osmer said. "You can sample a song right in the search engine results and with the link underneath, connect to MSN Music. That's just a start." Osmer said the search could connect to products like Microsoft Money and Maps, and even third-party products.

"Expanding that universe is key to our long-term success," he said. "Certainly down the road, it's kind of unlimited as to what the opportunities might be for engaging consumers in that sort of activity."

Unlike the former testers, the beta search site includes ads provided by Yahoo's Overture division and MSN. They appear in the familiar formation: no more than three sponsored links at the top, and text boxes at the side of the search results.

"So far, we're quite happy with how the partnership with Overture has been going, and we will continue down the path," he said. MSN may explore other search advertising strategies, such as locally targeted ads, still in partnership with Overture.

Osmer hinted that MSN Search aims to become a Google-like "platform," a technology base that other companies can take advantage of. "Our own engine is a great platform for us to innovate on," he said. "It's somewhat logical that at some point we'd enable third parties to build on top of it."

Osmer said MSN is on track to offer desktop search by the end of 2004. Google introduced this in October, following many independent software companies that sell such products. Ask Jeeves also plans to launch desktop search this year.

Osmer wouldn't comment on how MSN's efforts dovetail with those of Microsoft's Windows teams. Microsoft plans to ship a beta version of a new file system, WinFS, around the time it ships its next-generation operating system, code-named Longhorn.

"There are a lot of synergies between the beta search engine and desktop search," he said.

MSN aims to go live with its proprietary search technology by the end of 2005. "This is just a start for us," he said. "There's still a relatively long way to go."

So far, however, Microsoft is playing catch-up in search technology. It's relied upon a series of partnerships to provide the function for MSN. Yahoo, the latest search partner, also provides some of the ads shown along with search results.

At stake is the $2.6 billion search advertising market, which Jupiter Research expects to surge to $5.5 billion in 2009.

During Microsoft's latest shareholders' meeting, held November 9, Chairman Bill Gates acknowledged the company's trailing position in search. "We have competitors in some cases getting in earlier than we are, and we need to make sure that we come along and do an even better job than they do," he said. Later in the meeting, CEO Steve Ballmer said Microsoft hopes to double MSN's advertising revenue in the next five years.

The arguments about whose search index is bigger reminds usability expert Nielsen of the first rush of search engines in the late 1990s. "Alta Vista's big claim to fame was a big index. All of the search engines had the same general problem: They were good at having a big index but not at prioritizing the results." He said prioritizing results, so the most relevant appear at the top, is the top differentiator in search.