Microsoft has made a number of changes to its Windows Live offerings, including pushing some services out of beta and adding new features to others.
When Microsoft launched its next-generation Windows Live Search beta last March, the company said it was working toward unifying all its various platforms into a single service.
Now, Microsoft has taken the beta label off Windows Live Search. It has also started unifying its services. "We're taking users of MSN and upgrading them to the Live Search experience" over the next few days, said Christopher Payne, Microsoft's corporate VP, Windows Live Search. "Live.com is now first and foremost a search destination," he said.
Microsoft has also pushed the Windows Live Local service out of beta, and added a number of new features to the overall suite of Windows Live services.
Notably, the user interface for Windows Live Search is cleaner and less cluttered. "I think the overall user interface is a big step up," said Payne. The service no longer offers an "infinite scroll" of results, but a new set of "related searches" links offer some compelling query refinement tools for many (but not all) queries.
Payne said related searches not only make it easier for users to continue to use shorter queries, but also help Microsoft better understand searcher intent when people use them to drill down on the subject they're looking for. "It's a cheap way to get more interactivity," he said.
Image search has also been upgraded. Previously powered by Picsearch, Microsoft is now using its own internally developed image search algorithms and index that have been over a year in the making. It's an excellent image search offering, with very good relevance for all the test queries I tried.
A slider at the top of the result page allows you to control thumbnail size, and a menu gives you several different options for displaying thumbnails of specific sizes. Mousing over a thumbnail causes the image to expand and spawns information about the filename, size, and location of the image.
Unlike Web search, image search continues to use the infinite scroll for results, allowing you to see a continuous series of images as you scroll down the page.
The coolest feature is the addition of a "scratchpad" that lets you drag images to the right pane and save them as a "collection," which you can name and recall at any time. The scratchpad, which debuted with Windows Live Local search, is a very helpful addition to image search and would be a welcome addition to Web search results.
Windows Live Local search has also lost its beta tag and is more fully integrated into Windows Live. Additionally, Microsoft has beefed up coverage of areas in the U.S. with its low-level "bird's eye" imagery, covering just over 30 percent of the population centers in the U.S. Payne said Microsoft plans to continue adding to the scope of bird's eye imagery available in Windows Live Local.
Microsoft has also added its relatively new QnA question-answering service and a video search service to Windows Live Search. Payne says social search initiatives have become a key area in which Microsoft feels it can aggressively compete with Google and Yahoo as it leverages and integrates tools like QnA, Messenger, and Spaces for its over 200 million registered users.
For the new video search, Microsoft partnered with AOL-owned Truveo due to strong customer demand, according to Payne. He said Microsoft is building its own video search, however, but didn't say when the company plans to roll it out.
In a nod to conventions, Microsoft has also renamed its "Search Builder" tool as a more traditional "Advanced" search link. Clicking this link opens up the search builder box directly beneath the search box.
In all, Microsoft's enhancements to Windows Live Search are welcome, improving functionality or adding cool new features to the service. If you have yet to try the service, it's definitely worth a look.
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