MSN Plays Catch Up with Newsbot, Blogbot

Microsoft’s MSN plans to launch a handful of new search features in the next year, including engines that will search news sites and blogs, and another that offers natural language Web search results.

The new initiatives, announced at last week’s Strategic Account Summit for Microsoft clients and partners in Redmond, Washington, are a way for the online giant to catch up with other search players.

“They’re [MSN] well behind Google and Overture and other names that come readily to mind, and in some ways it’s an interesting approach to try to target some of these [blogs and news sites] instead of trying to search for everything,” said Joe Laszlo, senior analyst for Jupiter Research, which shares a parent company of this publication.

MSN’s search services are currently provided by Yahoo and Overture. Both Google and Yahoo already have news search services.

“Microsoft really needs to compete with Google. All the new bots are a page taken out of Google’s playbook. It has similar services driven by similar bots,” said Rob Helm of Directions on Microsoft, an independent IT research firm covering Microsoft. Speaking at the Summit last week, MSN CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged that he regretted Microsoft’s decision to outsource its search services and said the company would be stepping up its own offerings. “You’ll see good competition in the search area and that will be good for business,” Ballmer vowed.

The MSN Blogbot will make it possible for users to find blogs, e.g. personal Web pages, with specific subjects. The NewsBot, currently being tested on 10 of MSN’s international sites, gathers news from more than 4,000 worldwide news sources and can be searched according to topic. Users can also search by sections, including sports, technology, world news and business. The site offers personalized content and recommends related links to subjects the user has previously accessed.

Though Laszlo says offering a blog bot is a good idea, and blogs are a hot topic of conversation these days, he noted, “Blogs are such a tiny, tiny thing. So few people read them, it’s hard to think of a blog search engine being massively popular.”

However, Laszlo said, “news is something people do track online. If you had a way for people to find trusted sources of news online, it would be an important service to offer and would differentiate MSN.”

MSN also plans to release Answerbot, which will use a natural language interface. This means questions can be typed in more natural, sentence form instead of shortened phrases. This kind of search tool has been available for some time, perhaps most notably through Ask Jeeves, one of the first search engines.

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