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A Closer Look At Microsoft's Instant Answers

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Continuing our four-part series on the special information sections creeping into general search results, today we take a look at Microsoft's Live.com Instant Answers.

Last week, I wrote about Ask's Smart Answers. In the next two installments, I will introduce Yahoo! Shortcuts and Google OneBox results. These articles are brief introductions to the services with a lot of examples for you to explore.

The definition of ‘delight’, found by typing ‘delight definition’ into Live.com and clicking on the Instant Answer, is joy or great enjoyment and pleasure. When I talked to Irving Kwong and Chris Rayner, members of Microsoft’s core search team, about Instant Answers, they repeatedly said they were looking for opportunities to delight searchers.

“We have and will invest in Instant Answers as a delight point. There’s absolutely no monetization involved. Instant Answers are really about doing the best we can to provide searchers with the information or links to get answers. We found that the search engines themselves weren’t great at giving perfect answers for things people need instantly like stock quotes, weather, and sports scores. Wherever people have to click and transfer off [of Live.com” and search again, that’s a great opportunity for Instant Answers.”

After only a couple minutes, we dove into some of Microsoft’s Instant Answers, which really did turn out to be points of delight. The first example we looked at was ‘Chicago Bears’ which didn’t just return a link to Fox Sports’ Bears team page and a some headlines, but a Bears logo, stats for the season (the Bears are 6-0, 3-0 at home, 3-0 away, and number 1 in their division), and a visually attractive quarter-by-quarter breakdown of last week’s game against the Cardinals (Bears won 24-23 on a big comeback in the second half). Chris and Irving talked about the presentation of the data being an important factor in delivering Instant Answers. This is definitely a theme throughout a lot of the examples we discussed.

Sticking with the sports Instant Answers, Chris and Irving told me that the Instant Answers team had concentrated on low hanging fruit. The sports scores Live.com provides for a specific date is a perfect example. Type in 'MLB 5/22', and the Instant Answer returns all the major league baseball scores for May 22. Type in 'College Football 10/7' or 'NFL 10/8' and the Instant Answer returns all the college football or all the national football league results for those dates.

Searches can also enter in the name of a player and get statistics ('Barry Bonds', 'Tiki Barber'). As a sports fan, this information easily impressed me... although I was a little upset that the NHL wasn’t included. I'm sure it will pop up soon.

As opposed to Ask’s Smart Answers (featured last week) which freely links to 3rd party informational databases, Microsoft relies heavily on its very close partners or sister companies to deliver the data for Instant Answers. The sports Instant Answers highlighted above are provided by Fox Sports.

Reference related Instant Answers are provided by Microsoft Encarta: 'population of Nigeria’ (131,859,730), 'hypothalamus definition

Finance related Instant Answers are provided by MSN Money: ‘msft stock’ (28.44 as of October 17), ‘drbnx

And music related Instant Answers are provide by MSN Music: ‘U2’, ‘Billy Joel

Instant Answers also include the normal News Instant Answers or top news articles as seen on all of the main search engines (hurricane Katrina, Iraq). These headlines are aggregated through Live News search. Unfortunately, I had a very hard time triggering any Image or Video Instant Answers which seem to be standard on the other engines.

So how does the Live Search team decide when to display an Instant Answer?

Simply put, “the core search algorithm is still relevant, but if we have an Instant Answer, we’re going to use it and it will take the prominent position on the page.” Irving and Chris also discussed the Related Searches on the upper right hand side of the search engine result page (SERP) in relation to Instant Answers, paid listings, and organic listings.

“We help people transition if they need to see related searches. We will still provide sponsored links and this doesn’t mean that the core algorithm doesn’t deliver, but we have a very high bar for triggering Instant Answers. If something is going to run full time, we want to be confident of the context of the question being asked.” As an example of this, a search for MSFT returns a stock quote, but a search for EBAY doesn’t as plenty of people searching for EBAY aren’t looking for a stock quote (to trigger the stock quote for ebay, just type in ‘ebay quote’).

While Microsoft's Live.com is playing catch up in general as they are a ‘newer participant in search’, the search team seems to be taking the opportunity for Instant Answers as seriously as all the other players, as the Instant Answers team is integrated into the core search team. ‘We want [Instant Answers” to be fluid and obvious. When we find customer problems, we see an opportunity for delight.’

And the team seems to get its inspiration from a multitude of places: direct customer feedback, brainstorming, Live QnA Beta, looking at what kind of things people are searching for and associated volume of searches, searcher behavior/trying to understand the intent of searches, competition, etc.’ Part of the process is just taking advantage of low hanging fruit as in the sports scores example above (MSN knows Fox and has a great relationship with them) or looking at what other high quality information is available through partners like Encarta. Such relationships make developing new Instant Answers easy and quick to implement.

Here are a number of other Instant Answers examples:

  • Multiple stock quotes: Search for ‘amgn dna celg genz gild quote’ and you get a table with stock quotes and volume, change in stock, and % change for Amgen, Genentech, Celgene Corporation, Genzyme Corporation, and Gilead Sciences. This is another good example of Live trying to present the information in a visually attractive manner.

  • Nutritional information: Search for ‘beer carbs’, ‘chicken protein’, or ‘fudge fat’ and Live Instant Answers returns data from the USDA. In case you don’t want to click through, one piece of fudge has 1.77g of fat).

  • Local information: Search for ‘san francisco gas station’ or ‘toledo pizza’, and you get information from Live Local.

  • Local information with reverse IP lookup: During our call, Chris and Irving demonstrated a number of searches where Live did a reverse IP lookup to give the user the most relevant information. Examples included ‘weather’, ’movies', ‘7-eleven’. In other words, the searcher doesn’t have to enter ‘tampa weather’ as Live already knows the person is in the Tampa area. Unfortunately, I couldn’t duplicate these results after I talked to the team, but I really like the idea of these types of Instant Answers as they get closer to understand the context of the question I’m asking.

  • Dates: Search for any date and Encarta returns a factoid about what happened in that day in history. Did you know that the International Red Cross was founded in Geneva, Switzerland on October 26. While these facts are nice, Live/Encarta should add the year and also allow for an RSS feed of the service. Ok, I’m a bit of a history buff.
So how far will Live.com go with these Smart Answers?

The team is looking for better ways to anticipate and delight searchers. “This is a major investment for us, but you get a declining return here. There are some things you can answer correctly, but the more you get into complex [searches”, the more you have to divine into what people want. If [Instant Answers” are not doing it for the vast majority of people, we don’t want to do it. Related searches are another way to anticipate.”

Brian Smith is a correspondent for Search Engine Watch and an independent analyst covering shopping and vertical search. He recently launched SingleFeed, a data feed management and submission service for small and medium sized businesses.

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