New Beta MSN Search Emerges

MSN Search has released a new beta version of its service. It offers a number of handy features, including upgraded spell checking and improved query refinement, and integrates information from Microsoft’s Encarta Enquire reference service.

Some users of MSN Search may already be encountering the new service, because about 5 percent of traffic to the regular site is being diverted for testing to the beta site, which went live a couple of weeks ago. The beta should go live on the regular site within the month, and many of the changes will also appear on the versions of MSN Search for Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

One of the most notable changes is with spell checking. MSN Search has had “always on” spell checking for a while. However, sometimes users may not want their spelling changed. Therefore, MSN Search will now warn you when your spelling is being changed, allowing you to override its good intentions.

For example, search for “broccolli,” and you’ll see that the term gets changed to “broccoli” in the results. However, you’ll also discover a link under the search box that says, “Spelling Corrected! Do not correct my spelling. Search for broccolli.” By selecting that link, you can force MSN Search to run your query with the incorrect spelling.

Unfortunately, the override link doesn’t always appear. For instance, an incorrect search for “geneology” is corrected and changed to “genealogy,” but no option to use the incorrect spelling is offered. Of course, you probably don’t want the incorrect spelling, but you do want consistent behavior with how the spell checking works.

Let’s stay with “broccoli” to see how MSN Search’s new integration of Encarta content works. In a search for the vegetable, you’ll see that the first link is “Broccoli (Encyclopedia Article)” followed by an Encarta icon. Selecting the link brings up a match from Microsoft’s Encarta Enquire research service, which is primarily made up of information from the Encarta encyclopedia.

Certainly, this is Microsoft promoting its own content through its search service, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it is good information. Many users will benefit from the new integration. Exploring the Encarta links, when they come up in response to relevant searches, will lead you to high-quality information.

Branching out from “broccoli,” let’s next try a search for “vegetables” to explore how query refinement has changed at MSN Search. In response to that search, you’ll find a section under the search box on the results page called “POPULAR ‘vegetables’ TOPICS.” In this area are links designed to help you narrow in on a particular topic. They are similar to links that appeared in this area before, but one of the main changes is that you’ll now see the links more often.

For instance, the “vegetables (food)” link brings up matches that are relevant to vegetables as something to eat, while the “vegetable gardening (gardening)” link changes your search to bring back sites relevant to gardening. In both of those examples, the query in the search box stayed “vegetables.” Behind the scenes, however, the link you chose transmitted other information that helped you get a more refined list relevant to the topic selected.

Though Popular Topics are intended to narrow a user’s search into a particular direction, new “Broaden Your Search” links that may appear at the bottom of results are intended to help you look more widely in new directions.

For instance, in a search for “vegetables,” a Broaden Your Search link called “Vegetables > Guides & Directories” appears. Selecting the “Guides & Directories” part of the link takes you to a categorized site list that comes from LookSmart. You can then use the “breadcrumb” trail highlighted in yellow at the top of the page to work your way up the category levels to see broader topics.

Other changes to MSN Search include new support for movie queries. For example, a search for “Shrek” brings up a synopsis of the movie and the option to view its trailer. You’ll find similar presentations for other movies.

Those in East Asian countries will also find that the sorting of sites within directory categories at MSN Search has been improved. Since alphabetical order is a concept alien to some languages, search results were being listed essentially randomly, MSN Search says. Now you should find more popular sites appearing at the top.

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