Microsoft Launches MSN Search
- By Scott Bekker
Microsoft's long-awaited direct challenge to Google's Internet search dominance arrived Tuesday with the formal launch of MSN Search.
"This built-from-the-ground-up version of MSN Search provides an infrastructure that enables us to rapidly innovate and give consumers precisely the information they're looking for, no matter where it's located," Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president of the MSN Information Services & Merchant Platform division at Microsoft, said in a statement.
Instead of promoting a search-only Web-page, as does Google's main URL (www.google.com), Microsoft chose to redesign its Internet service homepage (www.msn.com) and put the search box at the top.
On Tuesday, the featured article on MSN is a welcome letter from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. "Searching the Internet today is a challenge, and it is estimated that nearly half of customers' complex questions go unanswered," Gates wrote. "Input from millions of our customers - including me - was crucial to our efforts to make MSN Search the best it can be."
The size of Microsoft's search offering remains smaller than Google's. In a reviewer's guide, Microsoft claimed its search engine had indexed 5 billion Web pages as of January. Google's Web site claims its search engine has indexed 8 billion Web pages, meaning Microsoft's engine has about 63 percent of Google's content.
Microsoft is competing hard on features and arguing that Web users will get better matches with its slightly smaller search engine than they get with Google. With the prominent placement of the search box on the homepage of its Internet service, Microsoft is betting MSN's 360 million unique users per month will drive MSN Search to a fast start.
One of Microsoft's top advantages in search is its ownership of the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia. The company is attempting to leverage that advantage by making available direct answers to Web searches. Microsoft claims to have 1.5 million Encarta "answers" available in its search engine. The company is drawing attention to the engines ability to directly answer less common questions, such as "what is the world's second-tallest mountain?" or "what is the world's third-longest river?"
Microsoft drew on its long history of making existing technologies more accessible to non-technical users with an innovative way of fine-tuning searches using adjustable onscreen dials. The dials are part of the advanced search section of MSN Search called "Search Builder."
Microsoft is also emphasizing a "Search Near Me" option that provides more useful answers to searches for libraries, schools and businesses near the user. In a cross-marketing play, Microsoft will link searches for recording artists, songs and albums directly to its MSN Music store. One click can bring up a music file sample, and a consumer can buy and download the song with a second click.
In other areas, Microsoft is seeking to match popular Google features. Earlier, Microsoft posted a beta of its MSN Toolbar Suite (http://beta.toolbar.msn.com), and the new MSN Search leverages the PC search capabilities in the suite. The functionality mirrors capabilities of the Google Desktop, a beta tool that has its results integrated into regular Google searches.
Another area where Microsoft is going toe-to-toe with Google is in the area of category-specific search tabs. In MSN, the tabs include Web, news, images, music, Encarta and desktop. Google's main search page has tabs for Web, groups, news, Froogle (a search of online merchants for products, think "frugal"), desktop and a "more" option that includes a second-tier of selections such as images and local searches.
Microsoft previewed this foray into search in July with a technology preview of its new search algorithms. A beta version of MSN Search went live in November. The initial launch of MSN Search covers 25 languages, although some of the most distinctive MSN Search features are available in the United States only, including Search Near Me and the MSN Music integration.
Microsoft plans a massive advertising and publicity campaign around the MSN Search launch.
Meanwhile, the launch comes after Microsoft announced that its MSN business segment had blasted into the black for the quarter ended Dec. 31. In the comparable quarter in 2003, MSN lost $95 million on revenues of $546 million. For the 2004 quarter, Microsoft recorded operating income of $130 million on $588 million in revenues.
Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.