Microsoft turns spotlight on its search engine

Microsoft's Internet search engine, in the works for about two years, has made its big-time debut.

Microsoft announced on Tuesday that the search engine it built from scratch now takes centre stage at the company's Web portal, MSN.com, which previously had relied on search technology from rival Yahoo.

"The whole goal with our new search service is to deliver answers faster to users," said Mark Kroese, MSN's general manager of information services product management. "In a world where the search engine user experience is getting lots of links but no answers, we're really focused on giving users quick answers to their questions."

Since November, Microsoft's search engine had been in a public test -- or beta -- mode in a special section of the MSN.com portal, while the main search section continued to be powered by the Yahoo technology.

The new MSN Search powered by the Microsoft search engine will let users search not only Web sites but also content from Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia and MSN Music, Kroese said.

MSN Search also features a variety of tools to let users adjust searches, such as narrowing results by language or domain. The search engine also has the ability to deliver search results from a specific geographical area, a feature called "search near me."

Also on Tuesday, Microsoft introduced a redesigned home page for MSN.com with a cleaner and simpler layout in which the search engine box is featured more prominently. "We've reduced the number of links significantly on the page, which loads much faster and has a clean, light design," Kroese said.

The new MSN Search is available on 25 localized versions of MSN.com, including the ones for the U.S., the U.K., Spain, Sweden, India and Germany, and in 10 languages. MSN Search features, such as access to Encarta, vary among MSN.com versions.

With this rollout, Microsoft takes another step in its fight against Google and Yahoo. In December 2004, Google drew 34.7 percent of U.S. search engine users, while Yahoo came in second with 31.9 percent. Microsoft's MSN placed third with 16.3 percent, followed by Time Warner, which includes America Online, with 9.4 percent, according to market research company comScore Networks.

In the second quarter, total U.S. Internet ad spending was about US$2.37 billion, a 42.7 percent increase over the same period in 2003, according to a report issued in September by the Internet Advertising Bureau and Pricewaterhousecoopers. Search-related ads were the largest category with US$947 million, according to the report.

Microsoft has a deal with Yahoo's Overture ad network to provide the text ads that run with MSN Search results. Microsoft has no plans currently to build its own ad network, Kroese said.

What users can expect to see from Microsoft are frequent enhancements to MSN Search, now that the company has the search engine foundation in place, he said. "We're now really poised to deliver new features on a very aggressive schedule," he said.

Likely areas of improvement would be increasing the size of the search engine's index, which in November stood at about 5 billion documents, broadening the types of searchable documents to include, for example, video content and maps, enhancing result relevance, enabling wireless access to the search engine and expanding the ability to personalize searches, he said.

In related news, Microsoft on Monday also updated the beta of its MSN Toolbar Suite, which includes the MSN Desktop Search application. The new version fixes bugs reported through the Dr. Watson crash analysis tool in Windows as well as other bugs, according to a posting by program managers to the MSN Search Web log.

Additionally, the updated product can scan items in Outlook when it is not the default e-mail client and changes the way MSN Desktop Search handles e-mail attachments. The earlier version can cause conflicts with antivirus applications because it temporarily saves e-mail attachments for indexing, according to the posting.

Microsoft won't push out the update to the Toolbar Suite to users via the automatic updates feature. Instead, users who want to update have to download and install it from Microsoft's MSN Toolbar Suite beta site at http://beta.toolbar.msn.com/.

(Joris Evers in San Francisco contributed to this story.)

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