Microsoft on Thursday launched a beta version of its Web search technology, as it entertains ambitions of catching up to rivals Google and Yahoo.
What the software giant unveiled is a more advanced version of technology it introduced in July, with more searchable documents and personalization features. The site is accessible at Beta.search.msn.com.
As of Thursday morning, the beta site and many new features such as music clips were accessible only intermittently.
Microsoft has unveiled a new version of its search technology. It won't beat Google, but that's OK--it doesn't have to.
"We're looking into it," a Microsoft representative said. "Because it is a beta, it may go down from time to time, but it does appear to be improving."
MSN Search Beta has more bells and whistles than previous versions. The company, however, has not yet replaced Yahoo Search technology from powering its engine, and it won't do so until sometime in 2005.
Microsoft had been widely hyped as being ready to introduce a full-fledged search engine sometime this year. Founder and Chairman Bill Gates said earlier in 2004 that the company would have a homegrown technology by the end of the year to best the reigning search champ, Google.
Still, Justin Osmer, product manager of MSN Search, said, "While it's not final, it's a significant step to getting us back in the game."
The three companies are battling to win search loyalists and a greater stake in the multibillion-dollar advertising business associated with results pages. Microsoft is considered a formidable competitor by all, with plans to eventually combine desktop and Internet search, but its service has yet to fully materialize after 20 months in development (which is why it licenses technology from rival Yahoo). Meanwhile, Google and Yahoo make seemingly daily improvements to theirs.
"This is still a shot in the firing range rather than in the battle," said Danny Sullivan, an industry expert.
Among the improvements to the version introduced Thursday is the capability of letting visitors personalize search results by setting their geographical location. After performing a search, a Web surfer can hit the "near me" button to see local results. The technology is also designed to automatically identify the physical location of Web pages it indexes, and it attempts to detect the locale of a visitor to better match his or her results.
The beta service also lets people use a "dial" to reconfigure search results based on the dates pages were updated and their popularity on the Web.
MSN Music and Microsoft's encyclopedia service, Encarta, will also play a role in the new search site. When a person searches for a person or place along with an indicator--for example, an expression like "San Francisco population"--the search engine will display an answer from Encarta. Also, people can search for the name of a musician, like Madonna, to call up clips of her music from MSN.
MSN said that the service now searches 5 billion Web documents, up from 1 billion in July. Google said Wednesday that it has updated its index from roughly 4 billion documents to more than 8 billion.
The layout of the test site will include sponsored search results from MSN partner Overture Services, a subsidiary of Yahoo.
CNET News.com's Matt Hines contributed to this report.