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November 11, 2004

MSN Search Debuts

By Charlene Li

It’s finally here – after almost two years under development, MSN took the wraps off of its new search engine. Remember, it’s a beta! I’m cutting MSN a lot of slack here, probably more than I should, but I also understand just how hard it is to make one of these things work. What I’ll be looking for is how far they progress between today and their actual launch, which I anticipate will be in a few weeks.

I’ve been testing it over the past few days and here are a few observations:

+ Search results: I conducted a few searches (totally random from my search history) on the new MSN Search beta, Google, Yahoo!, and Ask Jeeves and compared the results. This unscientific sampling showed that the MSN Search beta had comparable results to the other search engines – in all of the cases, between 30-50% of the top 10 search results appeared on other search engines’ top results as well. In every task, I was able to find something on MSN Search that helped me towards reaching my goal.

+ Search shortcuts: There’s some natural language processing that’s taking place, so that if you type in simple queries like “population Alaska” you’ll get back answers from Encarta. Similarly, there’s mapping of popular songs an artists to MSN Music. I tried a couple of searches for vice presidents, artists, and didn’t have much success. The trick is figuring out how aggressive to be in returning shortcuts versus Web results – it appears MSN is erring on the conservative side, rather than risk a “false positive” for the time being. I expect that this will change as they beta goes on and they have a better idea of what users are searching for.

+ Local search: The “Near Me” button allows a user to find Web pages near a specified location. MSN has started geo-coding Web pages when there’s information. The problem is there are many pages without any geocoding information – for example, a business may have its address only on the “Contact Us” page. Poor content means that the results were also less than relevant – I’ll stick with more localized services like yellow pages and to some degree, Yahoo! Local for now. But I expect that MSN could apply some intelligence that if a page has geocoding information associated with it, that the location could be associated with the other pages on that site as well.

+ Search Builder/Results ranking: This feature has good potential, especially because it hands control over part of the algorithm to the user. I can use “sliders” to set ranking levels of matching, popularity, and freshness. This recognizes the simple fact that not everyone has the same criteria in mind when conducting a search, even if it’s the same query string. For example, in the past I’ve searched for an obscure AdAge article that lists 30 second TV spot costs from the 2003 season, but couldn’t find it on any of the search engines (or even with AdAge’s own site search). With MSN Search, I set the popularity ranking to “least popular” and found it on the first try. Granted, this feature will be used by only the most advanced searchers, but the idea is definitely headed in the right direction.

In the end, I don’t think this new MSN search is that much better than anything that’s out there – but it doesn’t have to be. It needs to be “good enough” for MSN to serve its current users, and hopefully, to entice wayward MSN.com and Hotmail users who search with other engines to come back to the roost.

Also, now that MSN has its own search algorithm, it will be able to develop search features like personalization that meets its users’ needs. Note that I mean MSN’s users, not necessarily the loyal users of Google or Yahoo!. Search is fragmented enough that I think each player will carve out their own audiences and develop features, content, and services that will keep them loyal.

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Comments

Mike Strock

9:40am on Thursday morning, the site is unavailable for searching. Maybe overwhelmed?

Charlene Li

Yes, the site was down this morning, presumably because they had so many interested users! But it seems to be working OK now -- remember, it's a beta!

clalitcall

My purpose in writing these articles is twofold; to help and to inform. There have been too many times that I have read postings on http://www.greentable.tk that are either blatantly wrong or so ego filled that the original thoughts and meanings are long gone. So much so, that no one can remember what the original post started as.

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