Microsoft will roll out enhancements to MSN Search that will represent the most significant upgrade in that search engine's history.
The improvements include a revamped layout to give the website a cleaner, simpler look and to more clearly distinguish between results generated organically by the search engine and results which appear because they are paid-for ads, often called sponsored results.
Moreover, the search box in the home page will feature a pull-down menu to let users choose whether they want to query MSN Search's web index, its news sources collection, a selection of the Encarta encyclopedia contents or stock quotes, among other options. MSN Search's performance has also been improved, as has the relevance of its query results
As part of the MSN Search revamping, Microsoft has also decided to put on hold, pending further evaluation, its paid inclusion programme, in which website owners pay to have Microsoft include their sites in the MSN Search index.
Search engines have been criticised for engaging in this practice, which detractors say artificially populates an index and thus skews the relevance of query results. Popular search engine Ask Jeeves last week announced it was cancelling its remaining paid inclusion programme.
While describing MSN Search's upgrade as the biggest since it was launched in 1998, Microsoft also said that the enhancements being rolled out are "initial steps" in a massive company push into the search arena whose goal is to eventually deliver a search engine that provides "direct answers" to queries, Microsoft said. This upgrade is part of a $100m (£55m) investment by Microsoft to develop its search engine technology.
Microsoft will also let users test drive a next-generation search engine it is developing, and plans to launch "within the next year".
A link to that new search engine, which is still in its very early stages, will appear at sandbox.msn.com.
Microsoft executives have said recently that their vision for the search segment includes the ability to not only search the web, but also users' PCs and other sources of information.
The internet search market has become very attractive in recent years thanks to search engines' practice of matching ads to individual searches, making the ads highly relevant to the information a user is searching for.
Advertising tied to keyword searching was the fastest growing and the biggest of all US internet advertising categories in 2003, according to a report published in April by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and conducted independently by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Keyword search revenue made up 15% of online ad revenue in 2002, and jumped to 35% in 2003. The rest of the 2003 US internet advertising pie was made up of display advertising (ad banners) with 21% (down from 29% in 2002), classifieds with 17% (up from 15% in 2002) and rich media advertising with 8% (up from 5% in 2002), according to the report. Internet advertising for all of 2003 reached just under $7.3bn, up nearly 21% from 2002.
Google leads in search engine usage both in the US and globally, according to recent statistics from market researcher comScore Networks. Around 35% of internet searches in the US in February 2004 were done using Google. Yahoo came in second place with 30%, and Microsoft's MSN third with 15.4%.
Worldwide, Google accounted for 43% of all searches, followed by Yahoo with 31% and Microsoft's MSN with 14.1%.
Juan Carlos Perez writes for IDG News Service