Live Search plays to its base

Microsoft is enhancing video and local search and introducing a specialized health site in its Live Search.

Microsoft thinks its Live Search can match Google in some areas now, but the company has been the underdog in search for so long it's not even trying to lure users away from its rival -- at least not yet.

Showing off a dizzying array of tools to reporters and analysts at its Silicon Valley campus in Google's hometown of Mountain View, California, Microsoft executives said several times that the company is focused on providing a better search experience for current users of Live Search, hoping to get them to search there more often.

The Redmond, Washington, company also wants to lure users of its MSN portal to more frequently use Live Search. They compared Live Search's results to those of Google in some cases and said customer research showed its user satisfaction catching up to Google, but didn't talk about grabbing market share.

The numbers are damning: About 37 percent of Web searchers sometimes use Live Search, but only about 11 percent of all searches are done on the site, Microsoft said, citing independent statistics. The average user of Live Search does 15 searches on the site per month, while the comparable number for Google is 55.

Microsoft runs behind Yahoo and Google, and Derrick Connell, a general manager in product management at Microsoft, acknowledged that the search product was actually losing market share in the first four months of this year. But the company hopes to gain ground at least among its current base with the new capabilities.

Over the past three years, Microsoft has quietly invested in basic things such as coverage, expanding its index to more than 20 billion Web documents, executives said. But it's more flashy additions in video, health, local search and maps that may help Live Search make an impression.

The new video search interface, one of the features to be rolled out gradually to all visitors over the next week, lets users play a preview of each video on a results page just by putting the cursor over the image representing it.

Using internally developed technology as it "crawls" a video Web site, Microsoft detects moments in a video that are likely to be highlights, said Mike Nichols, a group program manager in Live Search. Those parts are combined in a 30-second preview that searchers can watch to get an idea of what a longer video is like. Audio peaks, flashes of light and scene changes are among the elements Microsoft's automated system looks for. The previews are cached on Microsoft's own servers for quick playing, he said.

Microsoft's new specialized health search engine, to be rolled out the following week, will divide results into separate columns for journal articles, Web results and sponsored results. To address consumer worries about privacy, all searches and results on the health site will be encrypted using SSL (Secure Sockets Layer).

In local search, Microsoft is using its Virtual Earth tool for richer results. It can project aerial photographs of places on Virtual Earth's navigable three-dimensional maps of major cities, said General Manager Erik Jorgensen.

A tool for users to show highlights of a trip, called Collections, will be enhanced so viewers can just click through the trips or passively watch them in a virtual video rather than looking around a map. The maker of a Collection will also be able to upload the virtual video to sites such as YouTube, he said.

Local directions will also be enhanced. Rather than make users enter a starting point, Live Search will offer directions from all the major highways, from which users can choose. As an option, the local search engine will also be able to modify those directions in light of current traffic conditions. Local and mapping features will be rolled out by mid-October, according to the company.

Microsoft has done a poor job selling its search offerings, and if it has matched Google on factors such as relevance, few people would believe that right now, said Gartner Inc. analyst Van Baker. The new video, health and local search features are impressive and Microsoft is doing the right thing by targeting current Live Search users and MSN portal visitors, he said.

"They've got to make sure that (group) is happy first," Baker said. After that, it may be able to convince others that Live Search is worth a try.

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