In the past decade, searching the Web has grown from an academic experiment to a multibillion-dollar business. Microsoft (MSFT) has not been a player, being content to outsource its MSN Search service to rival Yahoo! (YHOO). Now, Microsoft is offering a homegrown search engine, but, despite some nice touches, it has a long way to go to challenge industry leader Google (GOOG).
A public trial of the new service launched on Nov. 11, and it has some very rough edges that suggest it was pushed out before it was quite ready. Still, it's a big improvement over the old Yahoo-powered MSN Search, which is what you still find at the standard MSN search page and the MSN Toolbar. To use the new service, you must go to beta.search.msn.com. There you will see a simple, clean search form. You type in your search term and click either the "search" or "near me" button. The first runs a standard Web search. The second restricts the scope to a city or region.
The odd results generated by a "near me" search reveal the considerable gap between Microsoft's ambitions and reality. The top 10 results in a search for "furniture stores" in Washington turned up a newspaper in Kenai, Alaska, but no furniture stores closer than New Jersey. By contrast, local searches at Google and Yahoo both gave 10 Washington furniture stores.
When you type in a search term that can be interpreted as a factual question, Microsoft will try to give you a simple answer from its Encarta encyclopedia. For example, "capital of Ohio" returned the answer "Columbus" and a click on "Encarta Answers" took you to additional information on Ohio. Unfortunately, the encyclopedia search is buggy. "Who shot Lincoln" prompted MSN to ask "Were you looking for 'who shot' near Lincoln, Neb." Typing in "President of France" offered no answer but did gave a link to a speech presented in France by the president of the Church of Scientology.
ONE HELPFUL TOOL IN THE NEW MSN SEARCH is the Search Builder, which gives advanced users an easy way to fine-tune results. You can tweak the search algorithm to vary the weight given to the preciseness of the match, the popularity of the site, and the frequency with which it is updated. You can do the same thing in Google, but only if you know some arcane query commands. You can also restrict the search by country, region, or language, limit it to a specific site or domain, or get only a listing of pages that link to a specified site. And the search-results pages are clean: The only ads are clearly identified sponsored links that are even less intrusive than Google's.
Like Google, Microsoft offers the option of restricting your search to images and news sources. But unlike Google's eclectic collection of media outlets from around the world, Microsoft favors a relatively small collection of well-known, mostly U.S. sources. Usually the first result comes from MSNBC -- one of the few places, besides Encarta, where Microsoft has succumbed to the temptation to promote its own products and services.
Microsoft does not plan to make the new version the official MSN Search until early next year. That gives it plenty of time to fix the glitches. The company is also still building its index of the Web and says when it is finished, it will not only be bigger than Google's but will be updated far more often. In the meantime, however, Google is going to find things that Microsoft misses.
Microsoft's next big search move will come in a few weeks when it supplements its new Web search with a desktop tool that will find files on your computer, as does the new Google Desktop Search (BW-Nov. 22). Microsoft's unparalleled ability to integrate its search tools into Windows, Internet Explorer, Outlook, and other Microsoft Office components could give it a huge competitive advantage. But first it must greatly improve the quality of its new search service.
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By Stephen H. Wildstrom