After months of speculation and two "preview" releases, Microsoft has taken the wraps off of its new MSN search engine, the first major competitor to join the big leagues of web search in nearly a year.
The new engine, available at beta.search.msn.com is an algorithmic search engine built from scratch by Microsoft engineers. "This is our new engine that we've built from the ground up," said Justin Osmer, product manager for MSN Search. Released in beta form, it's expected to replace Yahoo search results still in place at MSN sometime later this year or early next year.
Supported by an index of 5 billion pages, the new engine is comparable to Google and Yahoo in scope, and for most of my initial tests, in relevancy as well. Microsoft has acknowledged that being "as good as" its competitors is merely the price of entry to the web search game these days.
The interface is clean and sparse, as are search result pages. MSN Search is now offering cached links to the copies of pages that its crawler fetched. Notably, for some pages, a date is also displayed next to the "cache" link. Microsoft says that this date is an estimate of when the page last changed. In many cases, this is also the date the page was crawled. You can see the crawl date for all pages by clicking through to the cached version of the page.
Osmer says that a comprehensive crawling effort is central to the success of MSN Search. MSN's crawling some pages daily, some weekly and some monthly, "which we believe is more frequently than some of our competitors out there," says Osmer.
New and Different Features
To set itself apart from the pack, the new MSN Search includes some features that differ from those found on Google, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves. The most prominent difference is the "Near Me" button appearing next to the "Search" button. Clicking the Near Me button effectively runs a local search for your query. In this release, the Near Me feature works only for searchers located in the U.S.
By default, your browser's IP address is used to determine your location. You can override this by explicitly entering your current location using the Settings command. The "Near Me" function works quite well, primarily because Microsoft has tagged every web page in its index that has geographic information, using what the company calls an "overlapping tiles model," starting with zip code, then including neighborhood, region, city, state and country information if available.
MSN Search also now incorporates additional non-web sources of information in results on a query-specific basis. For example, queries for factual information get "direct answers" from Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia. For music-related queries, inline results from MSN Music are included, with a link to further information, downloads and so on.
Microsoft is also offering an interesting hybrid approach to customization and advanced search. Clicking the Search Builder link opens up a window beneath the search form that provides explicit controls over many of your query variables. Most of these controls are similar to those hidden away on the advanced search page of other search engines. Having them available from any search form is a nice touch that should encourage more use of these refinement tools.
"The point is trying to allow the average person to be able to build relatively complex queries relatively easily," said Osmer.
The first allows you to easily modify your query by adding terms or an exact phrase, or excluding terms from the search. You can also limit your search by domain, country or region or language, or to pages that link to a particular URL. Search Builder automatically formats your query with the appropriate syntax, even nesting queries in parenthesis when appropriate.
The final refinement tool is the coolest feature of the new MSN Search, allowing you to control result ranking using sliders. There are three sliders available. One lets you select the degree of match between your search terms and result pages, from an exact match to an approximate match. The second lets you specify page popularity, from very popular to less popular. The final slider controls freshness of results, from updated recently to static pages.
Using all three sliders in combination produces a remarkably wide range of results for the same query, and for some types of searches can be extremely useful. In other cases, results become, well, just bizarre. I love the idea of giving searchers more control over results, and I like the idea of using sliders, but this particular feature will need refinement before it catches on in a big way.
Image search is also new, but not unique. MSN Search has partnered with Picsearch to provide access to over 400 million images. Osmer says that MSN Search starts with the Picsearch database and adds its own tweaks, but at this point results from MSN Search and Picsearch are almost identical for the test queries I ran.
The quality of image search results is reasonably high, especially when compared to an image search in Google, which seems to have faltered lately. Among the majors, Yahoo's recently enhanced Image search database seems to be the clear leader in this area, at least for now.
Through the "Settings" link, you can set several preferences for search results. In addition to English, the MSN Search interface is available in ten other, mostly European languages. You can also specify which languages are to be included in results.
Other settings allow you to change the number of search results from the default of 10 to 15, 30, 50 or 100 per page.
Safe search is new. Moderate filtering is the default setting, screening out sexually explicit images only. Strict will eliminate both explicit images and text. You can also turn the safe search filter off.
You also have the ability to influence the number of results displayed from a particular site. Search results from the same site are grouped together, with a maximum of two displayed by default. You can change this to display one, two or three results.
Desktop Search: Missing, but Coming Soon
Contrary to what's been widely reported in the press, Microsoft will be releasing a desktop search application before the end of the year. It won't be the application that's part of the Longhorn upgrade to Windows, but rather a separate application that will integrate with MSN Search. I've seen a demo of the desktop search application and am impressed with its capabilities, but a non-disclosure agreement prohibits me from writing anything more about it until it's actually released.
Microsoft has a number of other planned enhancements that will be released before the end of the year, covering a wide range of both web and desktop content, including a blog search feature—something no major search engine has yet done, despite Google's purchase of Blogger and Yahoo's major push toward indexing RSS feeds and making them easily available via My Yahoo.
These enhancements will almost certainly strengthen the appeal of the initial MSN Search application.
A Google Killer? Not
Over the past few days as rumors of the launch of MSN search have been widely reported, speculation has focused on whether this entry by Microsoft signals the end of Google's web search domination. Not likely, and not because MSN's search engine doesn't have the technical chops to compete with Google. It does, and Microsoft seems to truly have "got religion" when it comes to web search.
But Google isn't going to stand still, as we saw with last night's stealth increase in Google's index to a reported 8 billion plus pages, which means Google is likely working with a full index of more than 10 billion items—roughly twice the size of Microsoft's web index.
Google also has a seeming lock on searchers' mental shelf space—at least for now. Rightly or wrongly, many people automatically turn to Google for search, and Microsoft will have to do much more than simply launch this initial highly laudable foray to change the searching behavior of the masses.
I think they will, both by improving this initial beta version of MSN search and gradually folding some of the seriously cool research projects cooking in Microsoft Research labs into the search engine over the next couple of years. But let's not forget Yahoo and Ask Jeeves, who are also diligently laboring away on improving their own search engines.
The bottom line for searchers is that we've now got four world class "voices," as Danny Sullivan likes to call them, who are working to outdo not only their competitors but themselves. We've also got dozens of smaller players who are developing innovative new tools and approaches that will likely be absorbed or copied by the big guys.
Far from being a Google killer, MSN Search is instead a welcome new alternative for searchers, and a catalyst for sparking further improvements and innovations at other services. It's going to be a fun couple of years.