Microsoft is expected today to take the wraps off the beta of its new search engine, which incorporates natural language, local and personalized search features. The service is available at beta.search.msn.com.
The new search engine — which lets users select tabs for Web, images, news or music searches — is the result of two years of development work at the software giant. Microsoft has long used Yahoo-owned technology to power its algorithmic search. It’s a strategy that CEO Steve Ballmer has since lamented, while simultaneously promising the company would make up for its lag.
Microsoft’s determination to catch up to Yahoo and search leader Google is evident in its first major beta launch of its home-grown technology. The company goes a long way toward matching some of the more advanced features offered by Google, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves, and even debuts customization technology similar to that in one Google Labs project.
“We think there are a number of unique features to this search engine which will be interesting and compelling features,” said Justin Osmer, product manager of MSN. “Certainly our kind of ‘uber-goal’ is to help consumers find what they want faster.”
Paid listings, both from Yahoo’s Overture and from Microsoft itself, appear much as they do in the current Microsoft search site, which was re-vamped over the summer.
The most interesting aspects of the launch are the search refinement tools, which have local and personalization elements. Search Near Me lets users tailor searches to a geographic location, which they specify in their settings. If the searcher doesn’t indicate a location, Microsoft returns results based upon the user’s IP address.
The company decides what results to return through a variety of means. When it began building its index, it looked at things like the location of the host and the geographical indicators (ZIP code, city, state) in the content of the pages. It then tagged each page with a geographical designation, which can be matched with a user’s location.
So far, ads aren’t targeted based upon local data, but Osmer said it was something the company “would probably work with Overture and Yahoo on.” Osmer also said the company was looking at incorporating directory information and mapping capabilities.
The second tool set, Search Builder, adds a graphical interface to the typical advanced search features offered on most major engines. The interface, which utilizes vertical slider bars, lets users incrementally adjust search results based upon three criteria: recency, popularity and preciseness of match. The slider bars are reminiscent of those Google Labs uses to let users refine results in its Google Personalized test.
“It’s an effort to put more control in the hands of the average user,” said Osmer.
Another Microsoft-specific element to the new engine are direct links to the recently launched MSN Music. When users search for the name of an artist, song or album, they’re returned a couple of lines of information from MSN Music, and a link to sample and buy the music. The MSN Music information appears atop the natural search results.
Microsoft has taken a similar approach with its other proprietary content in a service it calls Direct Answers. If users enter a question or search term that seems to be addressable by the company’s Encarta encyclopedia, they’ll receive those answers to their query above the natural search results. The approach is most similar to what Ask Jeeves does with its Smart Search features, though Yahoo and Google also provide comparable shortcuts.
Osmer hinted that the company would continue to build its own proprietary content — such as from Microsoft Money and Microsoft MapPoint — into the search engine, and would consider doing so with third-party content, as well.
Asked if this was what Ballmer had promised when he described an “Answerbot,” Osmer would only say, “This is certainly the first step. There is certainly more to come in that regard.” Ballmer also said the company would be working on a blog search engine, or Blogbot.
As for the company’s other famous bot, Newsbot, it’s had an influence on the news search in MSN’s new engine. As with Newsbot, the engine learns users’ preferences over time — saving them by using a cookie. It then uses this information to personalize the way news stories are presented.
The company has indexed more than 5 billion Web documents for the launch, prompting Google to announce, on its blog, that it’s upped the Web pages in its index to 8 billion, from 4.2 billion. Microsoft says it’s crawling sites once weekly, or once daily in some cases.
Notably missing from the launch is Microsoft’s desktop search tool. Osmer said the company would debut a beta of that software before the end of the year. Google has already launched such a product and Yahoo is working on its own.
Microsoft plans to launch the final version of its search engine in 2005.
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