What's New at AltaVista and MSN Search

Both AltaVista and MSN Search rolled out incremental improvements this week proving that the quest for more relevant search results is continuing full steam ahead.

AltaVista increased the size of its multimedia index to more than 240 million files, including images, video clips, MP3 and other audio files, and added two new limiting features to its news search.

"We have seen increasing interest in multimedia and news search capabilities, and have enhanced our multimedia index to meet this growing demand," said Fred Bullock, Chief Marketing Officer of AltaVista Company. "Our expanded multimedia index positions us to go well beyond the traditional boundaries of Web-page search by incorporating richer media options."

AltaVista says that the new multimedia index features larger images, expanded worldwide coverage, with more international image files, and and more .jpeg files. Jpeg is the primary format used to store photographs on the web.

Like most image search engines, AltaVista doesn't really search the images themselves, because images are nothing more than bit maps -- there's no text to index. Instead, image search relies on clues like filenames, "captions," surrounding text, and the anchor text of links that point to an image to figure out what the image represents.

AltaVista has applied a new proprietary relevance algorithm to improve the quality of image search results -- and it works quite well. For example, a search on "Columbia" retrieved lots of images of the doomed shuttle, but also found pictures of the Columbia river, Columbia University, and even a tourist steam ship called Columbia.

New filters screen out 'noise' images such as buttons and banners used by web page authors -- unless you're specifically looking for them. The Advanced image search page allows you to specify whether you want photos or graphics, black and white or color images, or buttons and banners in your results.

In its news search, AltaVista also added the capability to liimit results to articles with images, or articles within a specific date range. AltaVista's news index consists of over four million articles from 3,000 worldwide sources.

Separately, MSN Search has added some new features to its beta site -- most notably, the ability to limit your searches to Microsoft Office or PDF documents. Results also feature contextual descriptions, with highlighted keywords.

The MSN Search beta is also slimmed down and speedier. Gone are what MSN described as little used items like the sidebar and banner. Pages have been streamlined to show more information at higher resolutions. And result pages load more quickly thanks to a 50% reduction in page components.

Relevance has also improved, thanks to efforts by both the MSN Search team and its search partner, Inktomi.

MSN is partly powered by Inktomi, which rolled out its own improvements last November. At that time, Inktomi completely revamped its architecture, moving from Sun to Intel platforms, according to Vish Makhijani, vice president of Web search at Inktomi. This led to both a massive performance benefit, and greater scalability, allowing much larger web indexes.

Inktomi also considerably enhanced the relevance of its results, putting more emphasis on satisfying the needs of individual searchers. "We're trying to get smarter about presenting the appropriate description based on user intent," said Makhijani in a November interview with Search Engine Watch.

Danny Sullivan will be taking an in-depth look at MSN Search in an upcoming issue Search Engine Report.


MSN Search Beta

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About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was About.com's Web Search Guide.