After two years of development, Microsoft has finally unleashed its new proprietary search technology on search engine users in twenty-four countries. Microsoft has long expressed a desire to enter the search engine market, despite coming late to the game. The now solidly minted profit center of pay-per-click advertising served as a catalyst for enticing the biggest technology player in the world into the search realm. Much like Yahoo!'s shift from delivering Google powered results last year, Microsoft made it clear that they were prepared to sever ties with its search results partner (Yahoo!) and create their own proprietary index and engine. Although the MSN Beta has been available for quite some time, yesterday's launch marked Microsoft's official entry into the search engine wars.

Microsoft executive Christopher Payne, an MSN corporate vice president who worked to oversee the development of the MSN search engine explained the rational for moving slowing into the search realm. "The last two years for us have been about building this foundation, this platform, that we can now move quickly on, and innovate on."

What won't be changing with the new launch is the source of Microsoft's displayed paid search ads. Currently delivered by Yahoo! owned Overture, Microsoft will be forced to share a portion of the ad revenue generated by their search engine with one of their chief competitors. This has led most within the industry to speculate that a Microsoft run pay-per-click engine will quickly follow the release of its organic, or natural search engine.

The question being raised this week is whether or not Microsoft's late entry to the search engine game will result in yet another Microsoft triumph. Unlike the Microsoft verses Netscape browser wars from the early days of the Web, Microsoft cannot rely on its ability to ship its product with almost every new computer being manufactured in the U.S.. When competing against other search engines, a company must build up a user base that chooses to visit its Web site, not simply use the default product on their own computers. Microsoft does have an advantage going for it in that the MSN Search product, despite having been powered by Yahoo! results, is already the third most visited search engine service on the Internet.

Apart from already having a steady flow of traffic, Microsoft has another potential advantage over Google. Billions of dollars that can be poured into advertising. Google rose to the forefront of the search engine wars primarily through word of mouth and media reporting, not through Superbowl ads or celebrity endorsements running across the airwaves during primetime shows. Microsoft has already unleashed a national marketing campaign, including television spots, designed to promote its new search service.

The new engine itself has some impressive features not currently available through the Google or Yahoo! search interfaces. Building off of the natural language focus of competitor Ask Jeeves, the Microsoft search engine looks to answer natural language queries by delivering results from MSN Encarta, its online encyclopedia. Type in a query like "Who is Tom Hanks" and you will receive a brief biography with links to related media, related articles and Encarta answers alongside the traditional search results. Microsoft has also built MSN search technology into its MSN Messenger program.

The quality of the results that Microsoft is able to produce will play a strong role in whether or not they are able to move ahead of competitors Google and Yahoo!. Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft's vice president in charge of content and services MSN's Internet division explained the differences between Microsoft's new engine and its competitors as he sees it. "We really are about answers and not about links...There's a huge amount of room for improvement...We aim to have an answer for every query."

My own searches showed some interesting results, but plenty of room for improvement.

First Search: "Gatlinburg cabin rentals"

Deciding I'd start my search for this year's vacation destination early, I ran this search on Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google, and received completely different results on all three engines. Despite the different listings, each engine delivered relevant results. That's good news for Web site owners that are having a hard time ranking well on any particular engine. Three popular engines showing three different sets of results means more room for companies to get a top ranking on at least one engine.

Second Search: "pumpkin marble cheesecake gingersnap crust"

This time, I was looking for a specific recipe that I'd found online in the past. Sure enough, each of the three top engines delivered the recipe I was looking for, but from completely different sites. Once again, there was quite a bit of variation over what sites ranked in the top ten on each engine.

Third Search: "used cars"

Figuring I'd try one of the more generic, competitive phrases, I was surprised to once again see a vast difference in the sites that showed up in the top ten listings at each engine. As with the previous two search phrases, the results were accurate at each engine, but different.

Fourth Search: "how much should my three month old eat"

Since Microsoft's new search engine launch highlighted its ability to return answers to natural language queries, I thought I'd try one. The results were disappointing. While Google and Yahoo! returned helpful, accurate results, Microsoft's listings were painfully inaccurate. From an article on fat loss to an Old Testament quotation to what appears to be some blogging sites and electronic texts of classic novels, the results couldn't have been further from accurate.

Ultimately, the quality of Microsoft's search engine results will be determine by the masses. If Microsoft is able to delivery quality results, word will spread and users will arrive. If the results are no better or no worse than Google or Yahoo!, things may stay the same. With Google's brand still going strong and Yahoo! recognized as the number one portal on the Web, Microsoft is going to have to give users a compelling reason to switch.

Check out Microsoft's new search engine.

Discuss the new MSN search engine at the Small Business Ideas forum.
February 1, 2005

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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