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Microsoft plays catch-up on search

Company unveils Live Search with significant changes, but others are already offering most of the same things.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
4 min read

Microsoft unveiled on Wednesday the first significant changes to its Live search site since it was launched over a year ago, adding new shopping, entertainment and health verticals and improving video search. But most of the changes, particularly in the core search relevancy, mirror what competitors already offer.

The company demonstrated the new features at an event dubbed "Searchification" at its Mountain View, Calif. offices. Some of the news was leaked late last week in a blog entry written by one of its own employees.

The most interesting items are:

• User reviews and ratings when searching for products. "We basically crawled the entire Web, Amazon, Price Grabber, Yahoo Shopping, any other Web site, and really got to an algorithmically computed score effectively, which we call an 'opinion index,' which synthesizes what people are saying about this particular product," Satya Nadella, corporate vice president of search and advertising at Microsoft, said in an interview with CNET News.com. This is really useful and will speed up the shopping and research process.

• Expanded video index, scene detection, mouse-over video previews and other features that make it easier to find and watch videos. "With videos now we crawl the entire Web for videos, YouTube, AOL Video, Soapbox, what have you, and then created something called the 'Smart Motion Thumbnails,'" Nadella said. Hovering over the still images with the mouse brings up a short video preview. As part of a new entertainment vertical search, Microsoft has created rankings for celebrities, called xRank, which assigns a score to celebrities based on things like click-through rates and volume of queries on that name. Personally, I don't care if Britney Spears is hot or not in this week's Internet buzz.

Microsoft Live Search now integrates video in top Web search results and offers mouse-over previews. Microsoft

• Mapping improvements will include single-click directions and printing, so that you can easily get directions from a particular major roadway and print the directions easily. The maps also will offer hints, such as informing you that if you have passed a particular street you have gone too far, and allow you to choose whether you want directions for the route with the least traffic, the shortest time or the shortest distance. Very handy.

• They also demonstrated some translation features that are kind of cool, including the ability to split the screen to see the original and translated versions, as well as the ability to hover over a section of non-English text and see the translation in a pop-up window.

Other new features that aren't anything novel:

• Business details on local listings. Results for specific businesses will include hours of operation, address, reviews, cuisine type, photographs and other information gleaned from sites like Judy's Book, Yelp and City Search.

Business search on Microsoft Live now shows user ratings, addresses and maps. Microsoft

• Instant answers and query refinements on health-related results, an increasingly popular type of Web search. Microsoft Live Search is integrating technology it acquired from medical search engine Medstory. Searches can be refined to focus on things like conditions and medications, and includes fresh content from the Mayo Clinic and peer review journals. In an interesting side note, the company said that the top three health searches are "sex," "pregnancy" and "diabetes." Live Search now offers a due-date calculator for pregnancy queries. I'm not sure what new interactive features the site will offer for a health search on "sex."

The health, shopping and entertainment verticals are new and show results mixed in with the Web results, as well as having tabs on the main search page. The video search is now powered by Microsoft's in-house technology and not a third-party as before. All of the verticals will now have instant answers with topic-specific data and links. In addition, the size of the main index has increased four-fold and the main search interface is cleaner.

The core search relevancy improvements include auto-spell correction; recognition of compound words; stemming, or adding an "s" to the end of the word if it is needed; and including words like "the" that would normally be ignored in a search, but which might be necessary to understanding the meaning of the query. For instance, a search for "The Office" would rank results related to the television show of that name higher than Microsoft Office-related results.

Most of the changes to the core search will be available by the end of September, while the new features in the vertical searches will be rolled out before the end of October. The company plans to release major updates every six months to one year, Nadella said.

With the latest release, Microsoft's third generation of search, Microsoft is catching up to Google on core search relevancy and surpassing Yahoo, said Nadella, who joined the Search team six months ago from the business applications division.

But Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, had a different take, calling the changes "incremental improvements."

Microsoft executives seem to be in denial on how much work they have ahead of them on search. Not only are they losing share according to Hitwise and comScore, but the usability of their site is sorely lacking, according to Google Blogoscoped.

And don't expect the other search giants to sit still. Sources close to Yahoo say the company plans to unveil significant enhancements to that Web search site in the coming weeks.

Granted, Microsoft's image search is one of the best and they have been innovative with maps, but that's pretty much where their search excellence ends. This latest face lift is more of a nip and tuck to get the search engine back into the contest than it is designed to win it.