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Microsoft gears for battle with sharper search tools

Microsoft gears for battle with sharper search tools

Microsoft is angling to swipe some of the search market from Google and Yahoo, with the launch of several upgrades and additions to its Live Search tool. Among other improvements, it has quadrupled the size of its search index to more than 20 billion Web pages.

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Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) has given its Live Search service an extreme makeover. In addition to improving the way Live Search makes queries and presents search results, the company has added channels for entertainment, shopping, and health searches.

The renovation -- the biggest update for the platform since it hit the Web nearly three years ago -- could help Microsoft chip away at Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG) gargantuan share of the search market.

"We know what kinds of things consumers are searching for, and we have invested in those key high-interest verticals, including entertainment, shopping, health and local search," said Satya Nadella, corporate vice president of the search and advertising platform group at Microsoft. "With the core platform in place, we intend to win customers and earn their loyalty one query at a time."

Search Party

After analyzing consumer feedback received since Live Search's January 2005 launch, Microsoft targeted four high priority changes: improve the relevance of the search engine's results; speed up the rate that Web pages load; improve the look and feel throughout the site; and provide specialized search channels for entertainment, shopping, health, local and video.

Microsoft has quadrupled the size of its index -- that is, the number of documents it searches -- in order to provide more relevant search results. Now, it will troll more than 20 billion Web pages. In addition, engineers enhanced the search engine's ability to predict the intent of the query.

Live Search will better identify keywords and phrases to make connections between seemingly disparate words and return more relevant results.

The new search channels will let users type in the name of a product category, product name or brand name, and then receive links to relevant shopping guides, reviews and photos, for instance.

Live Search's revamped local business search and mapping channels have dropped the second search box and floating toolbar in favor of a less cluttered page that provides single-click driving directions from major intersections. It also provides reports on traffic conditions in real-time, as well as any available alternate routes.

The health channel returns results from MedStory, a health search company Microsoft acquired in February.

On the entertainment front, searches for celebrities and entertainment-related goings on will return photos and thumbnail-sized photos.

Search Success

The upgrade has already drawn some favorable reactions.

"The video search is great with the preview capability that automatically extracts highlights," Van Baker, a Gartner (NYSE: IT) analyst, told TechNewsWorld. "The local maps capability has some great new features, [and] the overall relevance seems much improved -- but time will tell."

"I also like what they did with the health vertical, he added.

In addition to some obvious changes, the Live Search Team made some back-end tweaks that are less visible, Greg Sterling, principal analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence, told TechNewsWorld.

"The [user interface] is richer with 'Answers' -- structured content at the top of results -- and Microsoft says its index is now four times larger, with myriad algorithmic and relevance improvements," he noted.

Search Wars

Live Search is the third-ranked search engine -- behind Google and Yahoo (Nasdaq: YHOO) -- with 70 million regular users. With its renovation, Microsoft has issued another challenge in what may play out as a long-term battle with Google.

"It has been working pretty consistently on search over the past year, though there haven't been formal announcements until now," Sterling explained. "Moving past Yahoo will be challenging and take time -- if it can be done -- unless Microsoft does so through strategic investment in, or acquisition of, Yahoo."

However, at this point that's all speculation, he acknowledged.

"[Microsoft said] that they are targeting their installed base of users first, and then they will follow with promotions to target new users," Gartner's Baker pointed out. "That is a reasonable strategy."

In order for the software titan to achieve its goals, it still has to get certain aspects of search right.

"Relevance has been the main issue for them -- and that is table stakes," Baker remarked.

"The bottom line," offered Sterling, "is that it needs to be at least as efficient [and] relevant, and more user-friendly than Google. Productizing the second part of that statement is a challenge. Some of the features -- for example, answers, search refinements -- that Microsoft introduced or improved go some distance in that direction.

"But, others are doing similar things, so Microsoft will need to take some bigger risks and be highly creative to get more attention from end users," he continued. "That said, [Live Search is] likely to enjoy more engagement and frequency from existing users from the improvements."

Also in Microsoft's favor in its attempt to gouge a chunk out of the leading search engines' market shares is Google's current focus on building Web and Office-style applications. The challenger has a reasonably good chance over the next year to 18 months, noted Baker.

"Short-term, only fractional gains are possible. However, in the longer term, more is possible. I think that Microsoft does view this as a long-term effort, which it must be," said Sterling.

"Google is right now burned into the consumer mind as the place to go for search, but the company might not hold that position indefinitely," he concluded.


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