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Microsoft tests Web news service

The software giant experiments with an international news search service in competition with Google's, upping the ante in the hotly contested Web search market.

Microsoft has started testing an international news search service in competition with Google's, upping the ante in the hotly contested Web search market.

Microsoft Web portal MSN has unveiled a test, or beta, service called MSN Newsbot to search news in the languages of four countries--the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain. MSN Newsbot is an experimental, automated news service that gathers news from more than 4,000 sources online, according to the Newsbot Web site.

But unlike rival periodical searches on the Web, Microsoft said the service is designed to deliver personalized news to visitors, using tracking technology and consumer data from users of Passport, Microsoft's e-wallet system.

A representative of Redmond Wash.-based Microsoft did not provide much detail on the new service, but the company's site said it is being developed in partnership with San Francisco-based Moreover Technologies, a news data source, and Microsoft Research, its research and development unit.

"MSN Newsbot is in its first stages, available in beta at this time. It is expected that more countries will be added over time," said Karen Redetzki, MSN product manager.

The move is Microsoft's first direct assault on Google in Web search. The software giant has made no secret of its plans to dominate search on the Web and the PC, having invested $500 million to develop a system that binds consumer search of its various Web sites, applications and the Windows operating system.

MSN Newsbot targets Google in an area Microsoft believes can be improved through technology and in which its established relationships with Web surfers may give it an advantage.

To deliver the test service, the company in March hired Joshua Petersen, a former executive at Amazon.com who was integral to growing the online retailer's business from the use of its recommendation engine. Petersen is now leading MSN's initiative to customize news for users of Passport and general Web surfers.

Users of MSN Passport can get personalized news after they surf the site for roughly 10 minutes, according to MSN's site. The site displays news tailored to an individual's interests, based on news sources he or she has viewed in the past, for example. For people without a Passport account, MSN Newsbot draws on aggregate data to recommend sources of information.

"By gathering together news from around the world and tracking the interests of users of the site, we determine which stories are most popular and suggest stories that you may want to follow based on the patterns of other users," according to the site.

The move comes roughly five months after Microsoft quietly launched MSNBot, technology that scours the Web to build an index of HTML links and documents. MSNBot was Microsoft's first step in a multiyear plan to build new search technology that bridges Microsoft's home and business customers.

Conversely, Google is testing software in Microsoft's home turf--the desktop. Last week, the Mountain View, Calif.-based search leader began openly experimenting with the Google Deskbar, which lets people navigate the Web without opening up an Internet browser.

For news, Google started testing periodical search in early 2002. At the time, it drew fire from Web publishers concerned that it would syphon away their traffic. It has since improved the service, which now searches more than 4,500 news sources from around the world continuously. When it first debuted, the site searched 150 publications every hour.

Google News draws an audience of about 2.5 million monthly, according to research estimates.

MSN Newsbot combs newspapers around the globe and then clusters headlines by topic. It said it uses computer algorithms to determine when to feature stories. For example, it examines the number of sources covering the same story, when the story was published and how many people have viewed a particular story. The site does not host the content but instead links to the publications' pages.

Its data sources come from its partnership with Moreover, which declined to comment for this story.

"As news changes around the world, MSN Newsbot (beta) updates continuously to keep you current on what stories are being reported online. You can search to find news related to particular topics, or browse the sections to find news in Sports, Business, Technology, or World News," according to the site.