MSN Search went live with a new version of its site about a week ago. There have been a variety of minor tweaks and design changes, as well as some substantial changes.
Most important are the new "Popular Search Topics" links that now appear below the search box, after you perform a search. These are suggestions designed to help you easily narrow your request to a particular topic, if your original search was ambiguous. For example, in a search for "saturn," you'll see these options:
+ Saturn Corporation (auto manufacturer)
+ Saturn (planet)
+ Sega Saturn cheats (game hints)
Select a topic, and the search engine will rerun your request focused around that particular topic. However, the real beauty to these is that you're not simply giving the search engine new words to search for, such as "planet saturn," if you were to choose the planet-oriented topic. While those words will appear in the search box, behind the scenes they are mapped to other words that editors at MSN Search believe will bring up the best sites for that topic. Moreover, the editors may have preselected what they believe to be the best sites for that particular query.
That's just one example of the hard work going on at MSN Search to improve the quality of their results. A team of editors closely monitors search logs and provides human intervention where needed to improve the listings. Misspellings are a good example. Consider:
The top spelling is correct, but the two other spellings have been programmed to also bring up results similar to the correct spelling, thus saving thousands of teenage pop fans from the heartache of missing web sites about singer Britney Spears (and who knew there was a Society of Future Husbands of Britney Spears!).
For webmasters, this human intervention is also why you may not understand why certain sites appear in response to particular searches, if the search words don't appear in the description. MSN editors may have manually placed a site into the top results. And, even though the main results come from LookSmart, MSN editors have the ability to rewrite a site's description for when it appears in response to a particular search.
Returning to the Popular Search Topics feature, if there are more than four topics for a particular search, you'll also see a "Show All" link next to the words "Popular Search Topics." Select this link, and you'll be shown all the different topics related to your original search.
After doing a search, you'll see that the results screen has gained some new tabs at the top of the page. The "News Search" tab runs your query against content from MSNBC. "eShop Search" runs a search against listing at the MSN eShop shopping site. "Yellow Pages" brings back geographical business listings from the MSN Yellow Pages site.
The feature that allowed those using Internet Explorer to save results has now been removed. I always thought this was pretty cool, but users generally didn't take advantage of it. Given this, it was dropped to make the results page less cluttered. Similarly, MSN Search has added more white space to make the results visually appealing.
"We put white space to let page breathe," said Philip Carmichael, group program manager for MSN Search. "The results were definitely running together."
Numbers have also been added to each of the major links on the page, a small change, but one MSN Search feels is important.
"We think the numbers are helping because if you go to page two, then come back, it's pretty easy to remember a site's position on the page," Carmichael said.
Finally, should you try a search that MSN Search feels may bring up porn or adult content, you'll see a screen that offers you the option to try your search at NightSurf.com, an adult search engine. Otherwise, you can ask MSN Search to show you what results it has, and these will come from the Inktomi "Web Pages" database, since the LookSmart-powered "Web Directory Sites" listings do not contain adult content.