Microsofts Live Search Gets a Major Overhaul

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2007-09-27

Microsofts Live Search Gets a Major Overhaul


Microsofts Live Search Gets a Major Overhaul

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—Microsoft is releasing a major update to its Live Search offering that will improve its core search technology and bring advances in vertical search areas, changes the company believes now make its search relevance at least as good as that of Googles and better than Yahoos.

"In 2005, when we started, we were way behind both Google and Yahoo. We did move the needle in 2006, and we were happy with that, but, at the same time, Google and Yahoo also continued to improve," Satya Nadella, corporate vice president of Microsofts search and advertising platform group, said at a media event at its campus here Sept. 26.

But, with this release, "we feel that our slope of innovation has been so good that we can now claim to be as good as Google. We also believe that we are ahead of Yahoo," he said.

Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., also knows that relevance is a continuous game and requires a long-term commitment involving capital expense investments as well as the creation of a robust infrastructure, Nadella said. "While you and our other users will be the judges of these improvements, we feel very good about how far we, as a team, have come on the core issues around Web search," he added.

Microsoft measures relevance improvements in a number of ways, including using trained human judges to assess the relevance of its search results, and using a blind taste test, where the judges do not know which search engine the results come from, he said.

Finally, Joe Wilcox blogs, Microsoft delivers a search product that competes with Google. Read the blog here.

The software makers confidence about the relevance of its search results is based in large part on the improvements delivered as a result of six major investments it has made in Live Search over the past year: coverage, query intent, query refinement, RankNet, structured information extraction and rich answers.

Those six areas were identified as a result of extensive analysis of its search data over time, which showed that while some 54 percent of all users of searches were fully or partially satisfied, 46 percent were not satisfied.

"We also found that, with regard to the unsatisfaction metric, about 91 percent of the time users are unhappy with the relevance of the results returned. An analysis of these relevance issues found that 28 percent of the issues were around coverage—things not in the index— while 25 percent were about query intent and refinement, 32 percent were with core ranking issues, and 15 percent due to other causes," Nadella said.

This latest update to Windows Live addresses all of these areas, he said, and the new features and functionality will deploy into Microsofts data center in three stages over the next four weeks. Oct. 16 is the target date to complete this set of updates.

But the software maker is playing catch-up, as many of the changes in the update are already offered by its competitors.

Nokia is going to offer Microsofts Live Search for its Mobile Search platform. Read more here.

The update brings a fourfold increase in the index size, which addresses the need for broader coverage to help ensure that the right results are returned for the highest percentage of queries.

"Coverage is a direct function of the index size, and we are happy with the maturity of our core infrastructure," Nadella said. "We have focused on increasing Web coverage across the breadth of the Web, in deep, high-quality sites and in user-generated content. This has resulted in a relevance gain on long and obscure queries and has halved the number of queries where less than 10 results were returned."

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Understanding Queries

On the query intent front, the Live Search team has invested in improving the services ability to read and understand queries in a way that more accurately determines user intent in spite of common problems such as spelling errors, punctuation and synonyms, so as to return the best results possible, he said.

With query refinement, Microsoft has been aggressive with regard to related searches and spelling errors, and this update brings auto-correcting, when it is secure about the user intent, and also offers suggestions about the query.

The update also brings a new machine translation feature where, if a foreign language result is returned, the user can click to translate the page, and both the original and translated view are returned. Also, as the user moves his mouse over the original text, it is translated line by line.

"This is an area where Microsoft Research has been doing a lot of work, and we are looking to get to a place where we can do multilanguage queries and the like," Nadella said.

Read here about the debut of three Windows Live mobile services.

In addition, the new Live Search incorporates more user click-stream data to inform ranking and relevancy processes, yielding more relevant results across queries.

"We use a multilayered neural network ranking algorithm that is loosely modeled on biological neural networks and brains that can learn patterns that simple algorithms cannot," Nadella said, noting that his team is working on this with Microsoft Research.

Microsoft is also using its core search innovation work to extract structured data from unstructured text on the Web and power deep vertical experiences that update on the fly.

Office Live adds Ask-sponsored listings to AdManager. Read more here.

This technology extracts from across the Web information on products, businesses—including locations, contact information, photos, hours of operation, ratings and reviews—and celebrities, including images and videos, he said.

Microsoft listened to users who told the company that they sometimes are just searching for a specific fact or answer. As a result, Live Search has an improved and more robust Answers platform, which provides specialized responses to queries about specific things such as weather, images, celebrities and entertainment, sports, and stocks.

This specialized content has been more deeply integrated into the main search experience to add to custom searches such as images and mapping. "We have nearly doubled the coverage of instant answers from 5 percent of queries this summer to 10 percent of queries this month," Nadella said.

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In addition, the search results in the updated Live Search are now organized into a single page to help customers more easily find what they are looking for instead of wasting time clicking through search results and other related Web sites.

All these changes are about making Live Search more attractive to current and potential users, Nadella acknowledged, saying, "Core to all of these updates for us is making a quantum jump in our relevance to users."

The hope is that the software maker can grow the number of Live Search users, which currently stands at 185 million globally and just under 70 million in the United States, but which translates into just 11 percent of all search queries.

Click here to read more about Live Search going gold.

There are about 180 million Web search users in the United States and some 600 million worldwide. An average Live Search user performs about 16 queries a month and uses the service between five and seven times a month, Derrick Connell, Microsofts general manager of Live Search, told eWEEK.

"The good news is that we already have 70 million people in the U.S. using us, which is a huge opportunity as we dont have to spend a lot of money getting them to move over. They will also see all of the improvements we are making over the next month and they will judge us on those," he said.

Microsoft will focus most of its efforts over the next three to four months on messaging and engaging its current user base to grow the number of queries they perform every month. That will be followed by a phase of user acquisition, and the strategy will be to target its 500 million-strong worldwide MSN user base for that, Connell said.

But growing its share is likely to be challenging, industry observers note. One who works for a large investment bank was quite candid: "Microsofts messaging sucks. It is great at presenting its early 20,000-foot vision and view but a lot less adept at filling in all the details below that, particularly with regard to road maps and how this benefits users," he said.

While the new, consolidated site is a "huge" step in the right direction and the core changes will yield better results and go a long way toward helping people find what they need, "the challenge is motivating a satisfied and loyal Google user to actually try it so they can compare the experience," he said.

Given that as many as 40 percent of all searches relate to entertainment, shopping, health and local search, the Live Search team has invested in delivering specialized content for these key vertical areas.

Eric Jorgensen, general manager for search and mapping, pointed out that a third of all search queries have local intent, and 42 percent of those who actively use the Internet use maps and directions.

Read here about a 3-D online mapping interface Microsoft has added to Live Search.

"Microsofts goal is to deliver the most relevant search engine for local queries, with the broadest selection of local content on the Web, by providing the best community platform that yields the most relevant results via a single search box. We also want to become the leading location platform on the Web, and use mobile search to enable next-generation location-based services," Jorgensen said at the media event.

There will be updates to Live Search Maps over the coming months, including a new user interface, better ways to map local business listings, and quicker, more accurate directions with better printing features, he said.

Live Search Health helps consumers refine their health searches using related medical concepts to get relevant health information from a broad spectrum of perspectives. It also helps them navigate complex topics, with inline article results from experts such as the Mayo Clinic, all provided on a single page.

Live Search Products helps consumers find products, reviews, guides, prices and other relevant information, all within the Live Search interface. The new Opinion Index technology also summarizes the sentiment of the Web about a product, so users dont have to comb through multiple Web sites for this information.

Read more here about the battle between Microsoft and Google for enterprise search.

Enhancements on the entertainment front help customers get the latest news, including instant answers about celebrities that are accompanied by images, and previews. There is also a new xRank celebrity ranking, which shows which celebrity is currently receiving the most search requests, as well as a trend graph that shows how search interest in them compares to others over time.

Live Search Video is now powered by a new in-house video search technology, and it allows users to search for and browse online video content, and watch high-quality videos from the Web. A new smart motion preview feature lets consumers preview video within the search results by rolling over a thumbnail of the video.

The image index has been expanded and the user interface changed so that users can now search across millions of images and get the results presented with smart scroll, thumbnail image-sizing customization, filmstrip view and the ability to see the full image without leaving the results page.

Microsoft has also been investing in new and innovative search experiences across a range of scenarios and devices. An example of this is the mobile search client, a software-plus-services implementation for the mobile phone that brings Live Search to this space.

"Speech-based search combines powerful speech-recognition software on the mobile phone with the Live Search service over the Internet. There is still plenty of room for innovation, and Live Search is well-poised to lead in this arena," Nadella said.

Asked what Microsofts plans are with regard to opening all this up to the developer community, Nadella said, "We want to have an API framework around all this, which is very rich. We already provide a decent API that has fairly liberal usage terms and conditions.

"We want to keep making progress on that, and we will look at exposing the APIs for specific new advances like video and other things. The idea of opening up what we have, using APIs and evangelizing it for broad usage through the community, is something that we definitely want to do," he said.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on enterprise search technology.

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