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Improved MSN Search Launches

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Microsoft officially launched its new version of MSN Search in late September, and the improvements leapfrog the service forward into being a compelling choice for those searching the web.

Previously, MSN Search was simply Microsoft's name slapped on top of Inktomi's search results. Now MSN Search takes data from multiple sources, applies its own unique ranking mechanisms, then blends answers into a well-organized results page that proves you can be more than the sum of your parts.

After performing a search, the results page will usually be topped by a "Featured Sites" section. This is where MSN Search is placing its top picks for a search -- look for "star trek," for instance, and a link to the official Star Trek web site tops the list. MSN Search also draws upon the RealNames database to guide users to official company web sites. For example, a search for "united airlines" pops a link that says "Go directly to the United Airlines site."

You'll also find MSN's own content appearing in the Featured Sites section, along with occasional paid links to MSN sponsor sites. I see nothing to worry about here -- search engines have long used this type of page topper area for promoting sponsors. MSN Search is simply unique in actually disclosing it via the small "about" link to the right of this section.

Next, you'll probably encounter the "Web Directory Topics" area for many of your searches. Here, MSN Search is making available up to four categories of web sites that it thinks are related to your search. They've made a conscious choice to limit the options to the best four.

"We think the directory is really cool, but often you are overwhelmed with the directory results," said Bill Bliss, general manager of MSN Search, explaining the reasoning.

Take a close look at how the categories are presented. You'll see that you can navigate to precise areas of the directory beyond the main categories shown. For instance, here's a category presented for "star trek:"

TV Shows : Sci-Fi & Fantasy : Star Trek, Voyager, Next Generation, Original Series

Each word is a separate link. Selecting "Star Trek" would take you straight into the Star Trek category, while choosing "TV Shows" would take you into the higher-level TV category. Additionally, notice where the first comma begins. This separates the main category from its "cousins." So in this case, you are shown subcategories related to the main topic of "star trek."

If you choose a category link, you'll be shown a list of web sites for that topic. These listings have all been compiled by the editors at LookSmart. You can also choose to browse categories via the MSN Search home page.

MSN Search also tries to provide a variety of different categories for when a search term might have multiple meanings. For instance, look for "dolphins," and you'll be shown categories for both the marine mammal and the Miami football team.

Below the directory categories comes the "Web Directory Sites" area, where you are shown top sites from the directory itself. One thing that MSN Search is doing to improve the relevancy of sites listed is to actually review the results for the most popular queries, then apply some human intervention to ensure good sites make it to the top.

Additionally, MSN Search is employing a thesaurus-approach to its retrieval. Search for "cars," and it will also find "automobile." Even better, look for "geneology," which is spelled incorrectly, and MSN Search will also search for the correct "genealogy" spelling plus other common misspellings of the word.

Similarly, MSN Search works to interpret URL as words. MSN Search estimates that 10 to 15 percent of searches contain URLs, such as "www.hotmail.com." MSN Search will equate this to a search for Hotmail itself, and thus you see a link for Hotmail in the Featured Sites area.

After the Web Directory Sites comes the "AltaVista Sites" section. These are matching web pages retrieved from the AltaVista search engine, which now takes over from Inktomi as MSN Search's crawler-based partner. One thing that MSN Search loses in the transition is the page clustering that Inktomi provided. For instance, search for "collecting beanie babies," and you'll see how pages from one site can crowd out others. With page clustering, something AltaVista sorely needs, only a single page from the site would have been presented. That would allow greater representation in the results.

In some cases, only AltaVista results will be presented. This happens if MSN Search feels AltaVista is providing better information that can be retrieved from the directory.

Direct Hit also has a presence, but it is a minor one. After you do a search, look to the left-hand side of the page. You'll see an option to view Direct Hit's "Top 10 Most Popular Sites" for your search.

So there you have it -- a completely revamped service. It's one that Microsoft has so much faith in that as of Oct. 1, it stopped promoting other search services on the main MSN.com home page. Instead, the search box now queries MSN Search and only MSN Search.

"Where putting our money where our mouth is and betting the farm on MSN Search," said Bliss. Of course, those looking to access other services can still find them by selecting the More Searches option from the MSN Search home page. Plus, Internet Explorer users still have options to other places. But the move clearly shows MSN deciding that search is not just a commodity. They don't send their users to a variety of free email services -- instead, it's Microsoft-owned Hotmail that's promoted. Similarly, visitors are no longer to be sent as easily to competing search services.

Need some more proof of their conviction? Try search for "Yahoo." MSN Search will direct you there, but it also pops up a separate window telling you "Why MSN Search beats Yahoo."

Among the other changes is a new Add URL system. Submissions are sent to both LookSmart and AltaVista at the same time, and here are some tips to keep in mind if you use the system.

If you have submitted to LookSmart, there's really no reason to use the MSN Search interface. You are only duplicating your efforts, because the information is simply sent to LookSmart. Moreover, you can't pick an exact category the way you can if you submit directly via LookSmart. So, I'd recommend you only submit to LookSmart.

Having said this, if you have submitted to LookSmart in the past and still haven't been listed within six weeks or so, then I'd do a resubmission to LookSmart plus try a new submission via MSN Search. It may be that you'll increase your odds of landing in front of a favorable editors. There certainly is no penalty for submitting in both places.

If you do use the MSN Search interface, be sure to keep your title to 35 characters and your description to 145 characters, which are the LookSmart limits. Additionally, MSN Search doesn't allow you to pick an exact category for your site. That's OK -- choose the closest category, and editors at LookSmart will decide where exactly your site should be classified.

Similar to LookSmart, if you have submitted to AltaVista, then you are covered for MSN Search's AltaVista section. There's no reason to use the MSN Search submit form. You would just be duplicating your work. In fact, there are real disadvantages to submitting to AltaVista via MSN Search.

For one thing, you can only submit one URL per day at MSN Search, while AltaVista will accept several per day. Moreover, if you do submit multiple URLs via MSN Search (doing one per day over the course of several days), you are also sending off duplicate submissions to LookSmart.

So to recap, submit directly to LookSmart and AltaVista, and you will have covered yourself safely at MSN Search.

MSN Search
http://search.msn.com/

Microsoft moves to revive MSN
News.com, Sept. 23, 1999
http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1005-200-122652.html

More details about the future of the MSN portal site here and in the story below.

MSN Finds Focus - Finally
Inter@active Week, Sept. 20, 1999
http://www4.zdnet.com/intweek/stories/news/0,4164,2336631,00.html

A Yard Sale in Redmond
Industry Standard, Sept. 10, 1999
http://www.thestandard.com/articles/display/0,1449,6288,00.html

Could Microsoft be planning to tighten its focus by selling off sites like MSN CarPoint? A look at possible transactions.

How MSN Search Works
http://searchenginewatch.com/subscribers/msnsearch.html

Covers what you've read here, but with illustrations.

How LookSmart Works
http://searchenginewatch.com/subscribers/looksmart.html

Tips on submitting to LookSmart.

How AltaVista Works
http://searchenginewatch.com/subscribers/altavista.html

Tips on submitting to AltaVista.


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