On the heels of an Australian press conference where Microsoft founder Bill Gates hinted at a new search engine to be launched "later this year," Microsoft has surprised many within the industry by introducing “search technology preview” of their upcoming search engine. Gates also stated that the format of the site would change in July as would the "quality of what you get."

The preview site (available at http://techpreview.search.msn.com/) claims to have about 1 billion documents in the current index, about a quarter of the documents currently indexed by Google. However, a note on the site explains that Microsoft expects the size of their database to grow quickly. Additionally, international users have the option of using the preview search for any one of over two dozen different countries, including the UK, South Africa, Brazil and Australia.

The site is currently in an "alpha" release and Microsoft explains on the site that you "might also notice incomplete or missing features, or results that are inappropriate for your search." The first few test queries that I ran through the engine seemed to backup this claim. I received a notice stating that there were no results for my searches for "bugs bunny" the popular phrase "the war in Iraq." Even a phrase like "George Bush" returned only a single result – the official White House Web site. At other times, my search resulted in a "MSN Search is temporarily unable to process your request" message, likely due to the number of industry watchers trying to hit the database while I was writing this article.

The only way I was eventually able to access any search results was to copy and paste a query string posted in a discussion forum and manually edit the URL to include my search terms. Only then did I receive several pages worth of listings for most of my search terms. Several queries that I ran looked fairly strong for the first ten to fifteen results, but then quickly degraded into a long list of pages from the same Web site, each bearing the same title tag and description with only slight variation in the URLs.

The mix of listings for my "bugs bunny" query was relevant, but not necessarily representative of the best a search engine has to offer. While it seems logical that the official Looney Toons site would rank first, it did seem odd that the official Bugs Bunny site just barely squeaked into the top ten. Quite a few of the other results within the top ten simply linked to brief snippets of information from news stories or press releases that mentioned the cartoon character. A search for "search engine" produced surprising results with all of the major players absent from the top ten lists and Google showing up as the first logical result at #14.

Feedback from webmasters that have test driven the system are varied. Message boards across the Web are buzzing with feedback, complaints and celebration as site owners check their own rankings and those of their competitors. Early analysis of the algorithm by search engine marketers predicts a heavy influence on rankings by incoming links and link text, similar to the weight placed on links by Google's algorithm. While the size of the database is currently reflected in the multiple duplicates that seem to be showing up in the results, it certainly stands to reason that as the index grows and Microsoft tweaks their algorithm we'll see a tightening up of the listings.

All things considered, it's important to remember that what's out there for viewing right now is simply a preview of what's to come down the road. Any new search engine will need time to work out the bugs in the algorithm and to make adjustments to issues in how sites are displayed. For example, the preview results show no sign of clustering, a technique that displays only the top one or two pages from a particular Web site in the results, but invites the user to click a link to view additional results from that site. Functionality like clustering would go a long way toward solving some of the problems being pointed out in the test release.

Front End Search Interface Updated as Well

Along with the preview of their new search engine, MSN has made some major upgrades to their existing search interface at MSN. The bare bones version of MSN search (available at http://search.msn.com/) is reminiscent of the clean look popularized by rival engine Google. A simple query box and a drop down box offering users the option of search the Web, news, encyclopedia and more allows for a fast and effective search.

The MSN search site has also updated its search results pages to show fewer advertisements and to move organic search results further up on the screen. In fact, apart from slight variation in color and the MSN logo at the top of the screen, a user could easily mistake the search results pages as being from Google. Sponsored sites have been shifted primarily to small boxes that run down the right side of the search results with two featured sponsors displayed in a small box above the first organic listings.

Although the MSN site still displays listings provided by Yahoo!, a Microsoft press release boasts that sites that use paid inclusion to be listed in the Yahoo! index have been excluded from the search results at MSN. "With this significant upgrade to MSN Search, we are delighted to now offer what we believe is the best search service available for the 350 million MSN customers. Among the many improvements, we're particularly excited to increase the relevancy of many search query results by up to 45 percent" explained corporate vice president Yusuf Mehdi in a company press release.

This morning's moves are part of a $100 million investment by Microsoft as they look to go head to head with Google and Yahoo!, the two leading search companies on the Internet. Microsoft faces an uphill battle this year as the latest data from Comscore Networks lists Microsoft as handling only 15% of Internet searches, compared to the 30% handled by Yahoo! and the 35% handled by Google.
July 1, 2004

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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