MSN Search Gets New Look; Microsoft Gets New Search Engine, Part 2

Microsoft released a public preview of its Web search technology and gave its popular MSN Search site a facelift. Last time, I reviewed the new search technology. Today, we’ll look at MSN Search’s changes and what these things mean going forward.

MSN Search’s Facelift

The new Microsoft search engine is not currently used at MSN Search. It can be confusing, because along with the search technology announcement, Microsoft also announced a new look and feel for its MSN Search site. Despite cosmetic changes, beneath the skin MSN Search still beats with a Yahoo heart.

Perhaps half a heart would be more accurate. MSN Search continues to show a significant difference in the number of results found in comparison to the same queries at Yahoo. Is MSN hitting less than Yahoo’s full database? The company wouldn’t comment. In all likelihood, this is what’s happening.

This means for some relatively obscure queries, searchers may not find some pages that answer their questions. On many other queries, it could make no difference.

MSN’s cosmetic changes are in line with what the service said it would do back in March. (See this column for a deeper look at some of these alterations.)

To summarize: Sponsored listings now appear in boxes above and to the side of editorial results. The confusing “Featured Sites” area that often contained ads is gone. This helps more editorial results rise to the top, which MSN says it’s found improves perceived relevancy.

On the home page, the LookSmart-powered directory is gone. That leaves the page nearly blank, making it much cleaner and more Google-like. A drop-down box to the right of the search box provides access to Web, news, dictionary, encyclopedia, stock quote, movie, and shopping searches.

Drop-Down Box and Invisible Tabs

The return of a drop-down box on a major search service is nothing new. If history is an indicator, drop-downs are likely to be just as ignored as tabs have been. Lycos had drop-down boxes in 1998 like MSN’s. Other search engines tried them, too. They weren’t used much.

The tab alternative was resurrected by Google after AltaVista abandoned it. Google recently dropped the tabs. They’re part of the new look Yahoo’s now testing. No one used tabs much, either.

Non-use of the drop-down box isn’t a problem so long as MSN has other ways of revealing data within the results themselves, something I’ve labeled invisible tabs. MSN has done this before and continues to do so now for news, encyclopedia, and (apparently) some travel queries.

Search for “iraq.” You’ll see Moreover-powered news results above the Web search results. Search for “galaxy,” and a Microsoft Encarta definition and article links appear before Web search material. MSN calls this type of insertion clips search results.

News search on the U.S. site and others should shift to MSN’s own Newsbot service in the near future, MSN says. That’s already the case in the U.K. and on some non-U.S./English language sites, where Newsbot was released last year.

Paid Inclusion Gone

Beneath the skin, the most significant change is MSN’s decision to drop paid inclusion listings. We reported last March this might happen.

The move follows on the Ask Jeeves’ recent announcement it’s entirely dropping paid inclusion listings. As Google never offered it, this leaves Yahoo as the last major service with paid inclusion.

Dropping paid inclusion helps MSN avoid all the bad publicity Yahoo had to endure when it rolled out an updated paid inclusion program on the heels of releasing its own new search technology. It also avoids the mixed messages and possible consumer confusion paid inclusion can generate.

“The biggest reason we removed it is the user perception that there’s something bad,” Yusuf Mehdi, MSN corporate VP, said. “Yahoo has been a big fan of paid inclusion because they believe it helps relevancy, but it wasn’t enough for us to do something different for now.”

That leaves a door open for paid inclusion to possibly return in the future. It should be noted MSN, Yahoo, and Ask Jeeves still have paid inclusion operating in other types of searches, particularly product and Yellow Pages searches.

In a future part of my series on paid inclusion, I’ll look more closely at this issue and how, when it comes to specialized search, paid inclusion may be more acceptable to some.

Going Forward

MSN has termed this the most significant search upgrade in its history. I’ve covered MSN Search’s upgrades over the years, and it doesn’t feel that way to me. The service has constantly undergone similar cosmetic changes in the past, including ones said to speed load time and increase relevancy. Promotion of Encarta data isn’t new to this release. It was added back in 2001.

Far more significant beneath-the-skin upgrades occurred previously. The service largely stopped using LookSmart data earlier this year. The service also, somewhat sadly, seems to have abandoned its method of producing quality human-edited results for key queries last year. That was a unique competitive strength, now lost.

In many ways, MSN Search is in a holding pattern until it gets a heart transplant of Microsoft’s own search technology later this year. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates stated that’s the timeframe. Then, there will almost certainly be other changes and capabilities to the site’s advanced search page or in how it operates.

The new search technology itself, not yet part of MSN Search, is significant. It’s Microsoft’s first real weapon in the ongoing search wars. But the technology isn’t superior, nor yet an advance state of Web search.

What about Gates’ recent statements about linguistic analysis as a way forward? It’s a nice sound byte, which is why would-be search companies said similar things in the past. Such efforts have gone nowhere. In my view, this is primarily because linguistic analysis of pages or natural language processing isn’t that important when dealing with popular, short queries people conduct, such as “britney spears.”

What’s far more needed is a way to rate the authority or popularity of a document. Link analysis has been the primary method of choice, but its usefulness is continually whittled down as site owners become far more conscious of how they link.

Personalization and emergence of invisible tabs/specialty search are widely seen as leading the way toward a new generation of search. MSN Search doesn’t offer personalization now and barely much of invisible tabs. Its competitors are further along that path, something Gates was either unaware of or chose to overlook in a recent assessment of search challenges.

That may change, of course. Microsoft knows a big challenge lies ahead. Now, at least, it’s officially in the game with a search product of its own.

“All of these things [advancing search] we think are tough software problems, and we’re a software company, so that fits with our DNA,” Mehdi said. “This provides the foundation that helps us get to the next generation of problems.”

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

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