MSN Search Gets New Look; Microsoft Gets New Search Engine, Part 1

Microsoft finally released a public preview of its long-awaited Web search technology, over a year after first embarking on the project. The company also gave its popular MSN Search site a facelift. Still powered by Yahoo’s search technology, it’s dropped paid-inclusion listings.

None of the moves are groundbreaking. The beta search technology has glitches common to any new search engine that will be worked out over time. Microsoft’s search engine isn’t yet a serious threat to Google, Yahoo, or Ask Jeeves. Meanwhile, changes at MSN Search merely bring the company in line with Google’s look and feel and the forthcoming new results look from Yahoo.

Microsoft describes its new search technology as “raw” and admits for various reasons it won’t do well on some queries. Nevertheless, it’s an important start. Microsoft says it views search as a tough technology problem to solve over the next 5 to 10 years.

“We’re humble about what needs to be done, but we’re very excited about it,” said Yusuf Mehdi, MSN corporate vice president. “The first step is getting our own technology out there.”

Search Technology Preview

The new Microsoft search engine is best reached via its MSN Sandbox page. There, you’ll find links to the MSN search technology preview, designed to serve the U.S. specifically and the world in general. A U.K.-specific version is also offered, as are many others worldwide.

Microsoft says the new search engine has about 1 billion pages indexed. The plan is to increase this size over time. That puts it behind the size of other major search engines, though it’s important to remember size is only one of many factors that influence how good a search engine is.

“We’re smaller than the rest of the indexes for the moment, so I think you’ll see that on some queries, we’ll do a decent job. On some we won’t, because we don’t even have the documents,” Mehdi said.

Comparing to Competitors

How does it measure up? Relevancy is very difficult to assess, as I’ve discussed before. To do it properly, you should run a battery of tests. In addition, measuring how this preview service operates is largely a waste of time. It lacks some key features mature search engines offer that affect relevancy. These will almost certainly be added over the coming months.

Having said that, I did want to get some type of feel. I pulled a few queries from the old Perfect Page Test we conducted in 2002 for a very quick, very rough assessment (see the member version of this column for more information).

I can’t stress enough this quick testing doesn’t indicate how good or bad Microsoft’s search technology is in an overall comparison to its competitors. But it does give you a feel for some of the challenges and problems MSN will have to correct.

Overall, I found the search engine a good first effort. Clustering is desperately needed; only showing one or two top results from any single Web site is a way to ensure variety in the highest results. The ranking system doesn’t seem to do quite as good a job getting solid authority sites to the top of the list as it should. It may be susceptible to search engine optimization (SEO) tricks. Much of this is relatively easy to correct and not a surprise in a service debut.

The new search engine gives me a “more of the same” feeling. It doesn’t take search results beyond what Yahoo, Google, and Ask Jeeves do and, given their maturity, do better. In fact, a fast run of the tested queries through Gigablast — a one-man effort by Matt Wells — makes me think MSN needs to catch up even to that service.

Next week, I’ll look at MSN Search’s changes and what all this means going forward.

This column was adopted from ClickZ’s A longer, more detailed version is available to paid Search Engine Watch members.

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