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.
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.
Health.live.com includes a special topic dashboard, inline article results, highlighted information from trusted sources such as the Mayo Clinic and “action modules.” These modules are unpaid content such as a pregnancy quiz from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Privacy and security are handled differently in this vertical from the rest of the MSN network. All communication between client and server are encrypted and Microsoft erases the logs and deletes the cookies after 90 days. Moreover, the company will not target advertisements against these results. This is an important point because Microsoft claims its adCenter technology will target consumers based on their behavior anywhere on the MSN network.
Click for shot of Live Search video results
In fact, all these improvements mean nothing if ads—and clicks on those ads—don’t follow. Like other search engines, Microsoft didn’t give advance notice of the index change to search-engine marketers. Chris Hong, search engine marketing manager for Dealix, a provider of sales leads for auto dealers, attended the Searchification event. He said he understands it’s important for search providers to retain secrecy about their indexes and ranking algorithms in order to thwart “black-hat” marketers who try to game the system.
Hong said improvements to adCenter, MSN’s combined search and display advertising platform, have shaved off a half hour of his work day. Nevertheless, he said, MSN’s advertising interface remains too complicated and is way behind Google’s, where he can change a campaign with three clicks. “Every click matters,” he said.
Microsoft has increased the index by a factor of four to improve coverage. But size isn’t the only thing that matters. It’s also increased its coverage of structured information and user-generated content, and it’s feeding this into specific search verticals, such as entertainment, product reviews and local business information. The result, Nadella said, is an improvement in relevance for long and obscure queries and a halving of the number of times users get less than 10 results.
Query intent—the ability for the search engine to understand whether “apple” refers to consumer electronics or nutrition—has long been a bugbear for search engines.
For example, when someone types EPRML, the results now start with a definition from Acronym Finder. A query for “Dona Pacem sung in Latin,” which formerly got five related results, now starts the results with the lyrics of the song. A search for someone’s name now returns results from executive profile sites.
“I’m excited about our ability to take the entire web corpus we have and extract additional information about entities like people or products, the so-called structured information,” Nadella said.
He said improved query analysis fixes 30 percent of the worst query results. For example, search engines typically ignore the word “the” in queries. But if you were looking for the TV show “The Office,” you used get links to Microsoft’s Office products. By examining user behavior across the network, Microsoft says its search software will know when someone wants entertainment instead of software.
Instead of asking “did you mean” for a misspelled word, Live Search now simply corrects it and gives only results for the correct spelling. As Microsoft officials noted in the presentation, Google suggests the correct spelling and displays any pages that also contain the misspelling in the results.
Clicking “translate this page” provides side-by side versions of the page. This function also provides the option of seeing the original-language text with translations provided when you mouse over a section.
In terms of relevance, “We believe we are as good as Google and ahead of Yahoo,” Nadella said.
The new features will go live in stages in the next two weeks.