A beta version of Microsoft's search went live yesterday with an interface and features that bring it more into line with popular search engines from Google and Yahoo.
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A Microsoft official said that a less developed version of the MSN Search service that Microsoft had made available for public try-outs in summer was simply a search box without special features or functionality that returned results grabbed from an index of a billion documents.
MSN Search product manager Justin Osmer said the new beta had an index of more than five billion documents and let users narrow and customise queries.
He said the final release was expected in 2005 and would eventually replace the search technology that Microsoft was currently licensing for MSN from Yahoo. "Our overall goal with this beta and eventually with the final product is to help users find whatever information they want faster."
Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li, who tested the search engine, described the relevance of its results as "not fantastic" but adequate and "on par" with its competitors. She said the most significant thing about it was that Microsoft was getting close to having its own search engine, which would be a foundation for future enhancements, features and integration with existing Microsoft products and services.
"It's good enough," she said. "It gets the job done. And it puts Microsoft at the table to play with everybody else. The most important thing is that Microsoft owns it and so can do lots of different things going forward with it."
Some of the MSN Search beta highlights are its ability to:
- return specific answers, such as facts, definitions, conversions and calculations, to direct questions by tapping content from Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia
- launch specific actions from the MSN Search interface, such as listening to song samples and buying and downloading songs from MSN Music
- narrow search results according to various parameters, such as geographic location, news content, language, images, internet domains, website address and web page popularity or creation date.
Most of the MSN Search beta's features are genertally available from other search engines, and Osmer acknowledged that Microsoft had to work hard to enhance them and add new ones. "It's just a starting point," he said.
A desktop search tool will also be unveiled before the end of the year, and the plan is to integrate it tightly with the new search engine.
A beta version of the MSN Messenger instant messaging client already has a search bar built into it, and Microsoft plans to continue to integrate and expand on it. A comparison shopping feature wouldn't be out of the question, said Osmer.
Also likely is the ability to access MSN Search from wireless devices. "It's certainly our intention to make search available no matter where our customers are and where that information may reside, so down the road mobile devices absolutely could be a part of the strategy."
With the unveiling of the beta, Microsoft continues its march towards the front lines of the search engine battles in an attempt to snatch search users and advertising revenue from its competitors.
Search-related ads currently make up around 40% of the total internet ad spend in the US, according to a recent report from the Internet Advertising Bureau and Pricewaterhousecoopers. The adverts run along with search engine query results that are contextually related to the ads.
According to comScore Networks, Google had the biggest share of internet searches in the US in August with 36.1%, followed by Yahoo with 30.6%. MSN was a distant third with 14.4%.
The beta of MSN Search is available at http://beta.search.msn.com.
Juan Carlos Perez writes for IDG News Service