Orchestrating New Search With MSN

REDMOND, Wash. — Microsoft’s MSN division lifted the wraps off new search technology that can pluck data from the vast depths of a PC’s hard drive in blazing speed, and promises to go where no search engine has gone before.

“We now have the ability to search beyond what’s on the Web today, including data you can’t find in intranets, as well as on the Internet, such as deep Web databases,” said Yusuf Mehdi, vice president of Microsoft’s MSN division.

During a presentation as part of Microsoft’s financial analyst day here Thursday, Mehdi demonstrated a search of both the Web and his PC that plucked relevant files including e-mails, PowerPoint files, Excel spreadsheets, contact information and more Web links — within seconds of his query. Mehdi gave no ship date for the new search tool.

The toolbar and embedded search functions represented about 11 months of work involving development teams from across divisions including the team developing Longhorn, its next-generation Windows operating system. MSNbot, Microsoft’s Web-spidering content bot, has indexed over a billion pages as part of the group’s effort to ramp up search in the division. Those results are expected to eventually appear in a Web search engine now being previewed at http://techpreview.search.msn.com/.

MSN’s search initiative is also conducting an extended beta of a customized search-driven news service with media partner MSNBC, called Newsbot. The company has also announced plans for blog search, to be called BlogBot, and a natural language search engine, called AnswerBot.

But search is just one part of MSN’s three-pronged growth strategy built on communications services, search and an advertising platform. Another new technology the group is testing is called orchestrated advertising, which Mehdi said would provide a next-generation media experience on the Web, one that would help publishers target more effectively — and decrease the amount of advertising on a Web page.

“Think of this in the same way that people put signs in the layout of a grocery store,” he said. “When you walk in, you see what’s promoted at checkout, in the aisles. Orchestrated advertising is the same kind of concept, using the concept of rich media and personalization. The banners are also targeted, or orchestrated, so that a user can interact with the Web ad by expanding its size, replaying the format.” After the user closes out of the advertising, or is done interacting with it, a banner ad is replaced by local content.

In addition to its new search and advertising formats, MSN plans to
release a new music service, a new MSN homepage, and new forms of targeted advertising, Mehdi added.

The results add up to a rumbling out of Redmond as it gears up to challenge Google’s position as a search leader. “This is a major investment in search,” he said.

MSN has reason to be optimistic. The division is coming off what Mehdi called the best year in its history from a financial perspective after marking its first full year of profitability in fiscal year 2004. For fiscal year 2005, which began July 1, MSN is focused on improving its online advertising market share, and building on its premium subscription business with MSN.

The online ad market itself is on the comeback trail. According to Jupiter Research (which shares the same parent company as this publication), the online advertising market is expected to grow by nearly $10 billion over the next six years. The study said Internet advertising will increase from $6.6 billion in 2003 to $16.1 billion in 2009.

The study attributed much of the growth to the increasing sophistication of advertisers. Benefiting from experience and a more powerful tool set, advertisers are better able to target, measure and convert their audiences online.

Microsoft’s Mehdi would count MSN in that crowd. But he harbored no illusions about the work ahead, given that Google and the rest of the search pack aren’t exactly sitting still. “We’re duly humbled about the challenge and incredibly optimistic about what we
can do.”

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