Microsoft Corp.s MSN division officially launched a beta of its new search engine Thursday as it attempts to make inroads into Google Inc.s dominance in the search market.
As previously reported, the MSN Search beta is available as a separate site from MSNs main search service, which will continue to gather its search results from Yahoo Inc.s index. A switchover to the new engine is expected in 2005, MSN officials said.
The beta, though, offers a peek into MSNs approach for competing in Web search with its own technology. It provides advanced features for searchers wanting to alter the relevancy of results and expands the connections back into MSNs other services, specifically the Encarta encyclopedia and MSN Music.
“Its got a little bit of bells and whistles, but in terms of the actual index, theres nothing Ive seen there thats better than Google or Yahoo,” said Andy Beal, vice president of search marketing at WebSourced Inc., a Internet marketing company in Morrisville, N.C.
MSNs search beta returns results from the same Web index of about 5 billion documents that MSN first launched as part of a second technology preview last month. The index has grown considerably since the company began crawling Web sites with its MSNBot in June 2003 and first offered a glimpse into the search engine this summer.
MSN will continue to expand its index and already has increased the frequency of index updates, refreshing portions every day or week, said Justin Osmer, an MSN product manager.
Not to be outdone, though, Google immediately responded to MSNs search launch with an expanded Web index of its own. On Thursday, Google said on its Weblog that it has doubled the size of its index to about 8 billion pages.
Collectively, Google, Yahoo and MSN account for 87.3 percent of search referrals, the process by which search engines send traffic to other sites, according to Web analytics provider WebSideStory Inc. Google leads with 48.4 percent, followed by Yahoo with 25 percent and MSN with 13.9 percent.
MSNs Search beta in many ways follows the approach of Google and Yahoos search engines. Its design is simple, and it provides a series of tabs above the query box to search the Web, news or images.
“The search engine itself is very vanilla and designed to be similar to Google and Yahoo, so if people switch over to it, they wont be shocked,” Beal said.
But an advanced search feature called Search Builder stood out to Beal and other search watchers. It allows users to create custom searches, where they can change the importance of various search criteria. They can specify domains or countries to be searched and construct more complex queries.
They also can adjust relevancy based on the timeliness of content and can link popularity using a dial-like interface, Osmer said. Users can save the advanced queries as bookmarks in their Web browser, he said.
“It puts control into the hands of the users and lets them add a touch of personalization into the search experience,” Osmer said.
MSN also delved slightly into local search in the beta. Instead of clicking the “search” button when entering a query, users can click a “Search Near Me” button. It returns results bases on users locations. By default, MSN uses the location of a searchers ISP, but users also can enter their specific location.
But unlike local-search offerings from Google and Yahoo, the feature returns Web results and does not include business-directory information. Osmer said MSN has added geo-location tags to the Web pages in its index to return local results.
The beta also tied search more closely to MSNs other online sites to return more than a Web link. Specifically, MSN Search displays excerpts of Encarta entries above its algorithmic results for queries about common facts, definitions and calculations.
Searches about a musical artist, album or song return a highlighted section of information from MSN Music and include links to hear an audio clip or buy music.
“Those are our first crack at getting questions immediately answered for people and to help them get through their search experience as fast as possible,” Osmer said.
The approach appears similar to Ask Jeeves Inc.s “Smart Search” strategy, where it will return information about everything from movies and local weather to travel and famous people atop Web results using data from its network and partners.
MSN plans to add more features to its search technology before the full launch, Osmer said. The company has publicly discussed plans for a search service for blogs, called Blogbot, and a natural-language search service called AnswerBot. Neither is part of the search beta.
Next month, MSN is expected to launch a desktop-search product for tying in hard-drive data, such as e-mails and Office documents, with Web results.
Editors Note: This story was updated to include additional quotes and background.