Microsoft Unveils MSN Search

Those waiting for the Inktomi-powered Microsoft search engine got it in September: MSN Search went live in beta on Sept. 8. The addition is one of the last pieces to fall in place for Microsoft's portal site, MSN.

"This is an evolution of what our search service is going to be," said MSN product manager Nichole Hardy. "Our ultimate vision is to make a place for people to get things done on the web."

MSN is a familiar name that is being reused for the site. Forget about MSN's previous incarnations as an online service or subscription-based web site. Both are gone. MSN Internet Access is now the name for Microsoft Internet access service, and you do not need to be a customer to use the MSN site.

MSN is now the Microsoft portal site, and even the URL will soon change to reflect the name, rather than defaulting to the current Microsoft had considered called the service Start and in fact the pages were labeled Internet Start until recently. But it was decided that MSN had a Microsoft brand identity that could be tapped.

"If you asked customers what is MSN, they said that's some Microsoft thing. If you asked them what's Start, no one knew," Hardy said.

So what is there at MSN for those searching the web? Unlike its competition, MSN does not immediately exude search and navigation. It's more an umbrella for Microsoft properties. For example, links along the left side of the home page, such as "Auto" and "Travel" lead directly to Microsoft's Carpoint and Expedia sites, respectively.

Of course, there is a search box at the top of the home page, but some how this feels like just one part of the busy page, rather than a central focus.

MSN Search is just one of five other services that are rotated as default choices for this search box. The line-up here has just changed. Now departed as top choices are Yahoo, Excite and AOL NetFind. Left are Infoseek and Lycos, joined by newcomers AltaVista and Snap. Combined, these players are said to have paid US $60 million for the privilege of being listed over the next year.

Those using MSN Search and running comparisons against Inktomi-powered HotBot will notice a number of differences. The results will often not be the same. In some cases, MSN Search seems to have more listings than HotBot. Additionally, MSN Search's listings also sometimes seem to be fresher.

Most of this is due to the fact that Inktomi is now running four separate indexes to serve its various partners.

"As opposed to having everyone run on one gigantic index, we have different ones and partners assigned to them," said Troy Toman, Inktomi's director of search services.

Yahoo continues to use the index created in summer, and that database remains slightly smaller than the main index Inktomi started with. MSN Search is using its own index, as is HotBot. The HotBot index is slightly older and smaller than the MSN Search database, and thus differences are appearing.

The situation with the HotBot index is to be corrected soon, and in fact, Inktomi intends to eventually balance requests from all its partners across the four indexes, rather than the more simplistic means of load balancing by giving each major partner its own index, Toman said.

However, expect that differences may continue even when this is done. As I've written before, Inktomi intends to develop additional ways for partners to distinguish themselves, even when drawing from the same core listings.

One simple but important change users will notice is that MSN Search defaults to 20 results, rather than the standard 10. I think this is better in that it gives users more options at a glance, especially as relatively few people tend to click for additional results. WebCrawler, GoTo and Northern Light also default to beyond the standard top ten list.

MSN also features a directory, which can be easy to overlook. Find it by selecting the "Web Directories" option in a reverse bar at the top of the screen. Then look to the left of the screen, in the section called "Best of the Web." Select a category, and you'll be into the directory.

Microsoft lists about 80,000 web sites in its directory. About 50 people are involved with compiling it, and there are plans to continue growing it over time.

There are also plans to integrate the directory listings into the new MSN Search results, as so many other search services have been doing. Yahoo results may also be mixed in. At the moment, the MSN-Yahoo partnership extends to a prompt saying "try your search on Yahoo," to the left of MSN Search results.

"We know that the directory listing are very popular to those on the web, Hardy said. "That is something that we want to pull together."

At the moment, there is no submit page for either MSN Search or the MSN directory. On the search engine side, the best advice is to submit to HotBot. That will list you in the Inktomi index, which all Inktomi sites will eventually draw from - regardless of whether they use separate copies of the index. However, MSN eventually plans to have its own page.

MSN Search is also making an impact relating to the Internet Explorer browser. Those using IE3 are directed to a special search page when using the search button, while IE4 users have a search pane appear when using their search button.

In both cases, the default search provider line up has changed as with the MSN home page, except that GoTo is featured instead of Snap. This is also the same page that appears if the "Search Page" option on the MSN home page is selected.

Also expect that Microsoft's version of Smart Browsing, where terms entered into the address box bring back search engine results, will eventually default to MSN search results. However, there are no current plans to program particular keywords, as Netscape has done, Hardy said.

There will be more changes at MSN over the coming month. The curious will want to monitor the beta site, which is running in tandem with the regular MSN site.


MSN Beta Site

MSN Search

Internet Explorer Search Page

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Wired, Sept. 21, 1998