MSN Launching New Search Tuesday

Microsoft’s MSN is set to flip the switch Tuesday on new home-grown search technology, making it live on the main site, sources familiar with the details told

In fact, say experts, Microsoft’s latest beta search has been in a soft launch for at least two weeks, making such an announcement a bit after-the-fact. An MSN spokeswoman would not comment.

MSN launched its beta search technology in November 2004, but users needed to go to a special URL to test it. But slowly, according to search experts, MSN began intermittently offering searchers using the main page results from the beta engine.

“They were bleeding in their new search engine and waiting to see user feedback,” Jim Hedger, a search engine optimization writer at Step Forth, a Victoria, B.C. company specializing in Search Engine Optimization. Hedger, who first reported the phenomenon on January 20, said the proportion of beta search results had increased substantially over the last two weeks.

“About ten days ago, people were saying that what you see at is actually an MSN beta,” Hedger said. In his experience, search results returned by MSN’s main site have been almost entirely from the newly created index. Hedger regularly compares results from the various engines, and his analysis is based on his familiarity with the Inktomi index, which MSN had licensed to use before it began crawling the Internet to create its own index last year.

Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch, said he too had noted the increasing proportion of beta results being returned to the main search site.

“People are wondering, has it happened in all but name?” he said. “And that seems to be the case.”

Sullivan said that MSN’s new technology has not yet caught up to those of Google and Yahoo — but that may not matter to most users.

“At the moment, between these players, the differentiator is probably more brand than technology,” Sullivan said. That doesn’t mean a good brand name will make up for terrible technology, he added. “But the technology at MSN is not dramatically different than at Google or Yahoo.” (Search Engine Watch and are both owned by Jupitermedia.)

Sullivan said lack of a strong brand was hindering fourth-place search service Ask Jeeves . “They have good technology, and I think they keep the people they have because of good technology,” he said. “But they don’t have a giant, built-in traffic source, like a browser, a brand name or portal. Those are the things that are driving traffic.”

Unlike the big three, Ask Jeeves’ Teoma technology tries to identify truly expert sources — not just the largest ones, said Jim Lanzone, Ask Jeeves vice president of search properties. “We perform additional calculations than the other guys do, to get at who on the Web has credibility about the subject on which you’re searching,” Lanzone said.

Lanzone doesn’t think many MSN users will notice the technology switch. “If they want a view of what’s relevant on the Web,” he said, “they have two choices: the other three search engines and ours.”

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