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MSN Search Gets New Look; Microsoft Gets New Search Engine

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The longer version of this story for Search Engine Watch members looks at some specific test queries for a rough sense of how the new search technology measures up, provides some general advice for webmasters wondering if they should optimize for "old" or "new" MSN and has more details on how the crawler operates and what it indexes. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Microsoft released a public preview of its long-awaited web search technology today, over a year after first embarking on the project. The company also gave a facelift to its popular MSN Search site that remains powered by Yahoo's search technology and dropped paid inclusion listings there.

None of the moves are groundbreaking. The beta search technology shows glitches common to any new web search engine that only get worked out over time. Microsoft's search engine isn't a serious replacement for Google, Yahoo or Ask Jeeves yet. Meanwhile, changes at MSN Search merely bring the company in line with the look and feel of Google and the forthcoming new results look from Yahoo.

Microsoft itself describes its new search technology as "raw" and admits that for various reasons, it won't do well on some queries. Nevertheless, it is an important start. Microsoft says it sees search as a tough technology problem to take on and solve over the next five to ten years.

"We're humble about what needs to be done, but we're very excited about it," said Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president of MSN. "The first step is getting our own technology out there."

Search Technology Preview

The new Microsoft search engine is best reached via its MSN Sandbox page. There, you'll find links to the MSN Search Technology Preview designed to serve the US and world in general. A UK-specific version is also offered, as are many others worldwide.

Microsoft says the new search engine has about 1 billion pages indexed, with plans to increase this size over time. That puts it behind the size of other major search engines, though it's important to always remember that size is only one of many factors that influences how good a search engine is.

"We're smaller than the rest of the indexes for the moment, so I think you'll see that on some queries, we'll do a decent job. On some we won't, because we don't even have the documents," Mehdi said.

Comparing To Competitors

How does it measure up? Relevancy is an extremely difficult task to assess, as I've written about before. To do it properly, you should run a battery of tests. In addition, measuring how this preview service operates is largely a waste of time. It lacks some key features that mature search engines offer that impact relevancy, which almost certainly will be added over the coming months.

Having said that, I did want to get some type of feel. In the edition of this story for Search Engine Watch members, I pulled a few queries from our old Perfect Page Test we did in 2002 to produce a very quick, very rough assessment.

I can't stress enough that this quick testing doesn't indicate how good or bad the Microsoft search technology is in comparison to competitors overall. But it does give you a feel for some of the challenges and problems MSN will need to correct.

Overall, I found the search engine is a good first effort. Clustering is desperately needed, the idea that you only show one or two top results from any single web site as way to ensure variety in the top results. There's a sense that the ranking system doesn't do quite as good of job as getting solid authority sites to the top of the list, and that it may be more susceptible to search engine optimization tricks. Much of this is relatively easy to correct, nor a surprise to see in the debut of a new service.

The new search engine also leaves me with a "more of the same" feeling. It doesn't take search results anything beyond what Yahoo, Google or Ask Jeeves already do, and given their maturity, do better. In fact, a fast run of the tested queries through Gigablast -- a one man effort by Matt Wells -- makes you think MSN still needs to catch up to even that service.

MSN Search's Facelift

The new Microsoft search engine is NOT -- NOT NOT NOT -- being used at MSN Search. It can be confusing, because along with the search technology announcement, Microsoft has also announced a new look and feel for its MSN Search site. Despite these cosmetic changes, under the hood, MSN Search itself still beats with a Yahoo heart.

Perhaps half a heart is a better description. MSN Search continues to show a significant difference in the number of results found in comparison to the same queries at Yahoo, as discussed recently in the SEW Forums. Is MSN hitting less than the full Yahoo database? The company wouldn't comment about this. But in all likelihood, this is what's happening.

For searchers, this means that for some relatively obscure queries, you might not find some pages that have answers to your question. But on many other queries, it may make no difference.

The cosmetic changes at MSN are in line with what the service already said it would be doing back in March. See my past article, New Look In July, New Search Engine Later, Says MSN, for a deeper look at some of these alterations.

In summary, sponsored listings now appear in boxes above and to the side of editorial results. The confusing "Featured Sites" area that often contained ads is also gone. The result is to help more editorial results rise to the top of the results, which MSN says they've found improves perceived relevancy.

On the home page, the LookSmart-powered directory is now gone. That leaves the page nearly blank, making it much more Google-like in being clean. A drop down box to the right of the search box provides access to web, news, dictionary, encyclopedia, stock quote, movie and shopping search.

Drop Down Box & Invisible Tabs

The return of a drop down box on a major search service is nothing new and if past history is a judge, likely to be just as ignored as tabs have been. Lycos had drop-down boxes in 1998 just like the one now at MSN, and other search engines tried them as well. They weren't used much.

The alternative of tabs, resurrected by Google after AltaVista abandoned them, were recently dropped by Google itself and are going in the new look Yahoo's testing. No one used tabs much, either.

Non-use of the drop-down box isn't a problem as long as MSN has other ways of revealing data within the results themselves, something I've labeled in the past as invisible tabs. MSN has done this before, and it continues now at least for news, encyclopedia and apparently some travel queries.

Do a search for iraq, for example, and you'll see Moreover-powered news results showing up above the web search results. Search for galaxy, and a Microsoft Encarta definition and article links appear before the web search material. By the way, this type of insertion is called clips search results by MSN.

News search on the US and other sites should shift to MSN's own Newsbot service in the near future, the MSN says. That's already the case in the UK and on some other non-US/English language sites, where Newsbot was released last year.

Paid Inclusion Gone

Underneath the hood, the most significant change is MSN's decision to drop paid inclusion listings. Search Engine Watch reported last March that this might happen, and now it has panned out.

The move follows on the Ask Jeeves announcement last week that they were entirely dropping paid inclusion listings. As Google has never offered paid inclusion, this leaves Yahoo as the last major service still offering it.

Dropping paid inclusion helps MSN avoid all the bad publicity that Yahoo had to endure when it rolled out an updated paid inclusion program on the heels of releasing its own new search technology. It also avoids the mixed messages and possible consumer confusion that paid inclusion can generate.

"The biggest reason we removed it is the user perception that there's something bad," Mehdi said. "Yahoo has been a big fan of paid inclusion because they believe it helps relevancy, but it wasn't enough for us to do something different for now."

That leaves the door open that paid inclusion might return in the future. It should also be noted that both MSN, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves still have paid inclusion that operates in other types of searches, in particular product and yellow page searches.

In a future part of my series on paid inclusion, I'll be looking more at this and how when it comes to specialized search, paid inclusion may be more acceptable to some.

Going Forward

MSN has termed this as the most significant search upgrade in its history. Having watched and written about MSN Search's upgrades over the years, it doesn't feel that way to me. The service has constantly undergone cosmetic changes like these in the past, including those that were previously said to speed up load time and increase relevancy. The promotion of Encarta data is not new to this release. Encarta data was added back in 2001.

In my view, far more significant upgrades have happened under the hood in the past. The service largely stopped using LookSmart data earlier this year. The service also, somewhat sadly, seems to have abandoned last year its method of producing quality human edited results for key queries. That was a unique strength it had against its competition that's now lost.

In many ways, MSN Search is in a holding pattern until it gets a heart transplant of Microsoft's own search technology later this year, a time Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has stated. At that time, there will almost certainly be other changes and capabilities to the site's advanced search page or in how it operates.

The new search technology itself, not yet part of MSN Search, is significant. It's Microsoft's first real weapon of its own in the ongoing search wars. But that technology is not superior to others nor an advance in the state of web search, not yet.

What about some recent statements by Gates about linguistic analysis as a way forward? They make a nice sound bite, which is why would-be search companies have said the same things in the past. But such efforts have gone nowhere. In my view, this has been primarily because linguistic analysis of pages or natural language processing isn't that important when dealing with the popular, short queries people conduct like "britney spears."

Instead, what's far more needed is a way to rate the authority or popularity of a document. Link analysis has been the leading method of choice for this, but its usefulness has been continually whittled down as site owners have become far more conscious of how they link.

Instead, personalization and the emergence of invisible tabs/specialty search are widely seen as the leading ways forward to a new generation of search. MSN Search isn't offering personalization now and barely much of invisible tabs. Its competitors are further along that path, something Gates was either unaware of or chose to overlook in a recent assessment of search challenges.

That may change down the line, of course. Microsoft knows it still has a big challenge ahead of it. At least now, it's publicly in the game with a search product of its own.

"All of these things [advancing search”, we think are tough software problems, and we're a software company, so that fits with our DNA," Mehdi said. "This provides the foundation that helps us get to the next generation of problems."

What do you think about the new search technology? Share your thoughts on our forums in this thread: MSN Backend Sneak Peak. How about the new look to MSN Search? Come discuss that in this thread: Behold the new face of MSN Search.

The longer version of this story for Search Engine Watch members looks at some specific test queries for a rough sense of how the new search technology measures up, provides some general advice for webmasters wondering if they should optimize for "old" or "new" MSN and has more details on how the crawler operates and what it indexes. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.


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