Microsoft vs. Google Round 2: Windows Live Search Beta

If at first you don’t kill Google, try again. Renovating MSN Search didn’t work too well last time, but Microsoft is ready to give it another shot now by reworking the engine and repackaging it in Windows Live Search. The beta brings more original features and tools to the market this time, so is there is a possibility it will be a big guy soon.

Thanks to just being released into beta, we can see the highlights of Microsoft’s newest little engine that could. After that, we can take a look at the chances that this new market position will sway enough users to switch, and what this could generally mean to future optimization efforts.

Before getting into the details, it would be best to mention how Microsoft is moving its MSN branding to Live branding. The company is in the process of pulling its search engine and Hotmail out of the web portal and placing them on Live.com. The new site is Microsoft’s central location for web services, from personalized home pages to web-based versions of Office software. It’s pretty significant that they have chosen to pull apart the MSN brand that they have worked so hard to build, but moving the new search engine into Windows Live has some obvious benefits that will make their engine more powerful and useful.

The search engine is already offering the option to store search criteria and place it on your personalized homepage as a feed. Windows Live Search will probably soon be integrated into the collaborative web features that Microsoft is building. Users might be able to search their storage of Office Live files and Hotmail emails from the engine. If Microsoft starts offering storage features like Google has been doing, those files will probably become search material too. Not all of the potential has been tapped yet, but the entire site is still a beta.

It has still started offering new features not found in Google. Last time MSN renovated the engine, it turned out to be more or less an imitation of Google. This time, with their creativity going into it, we could see something better. CNN spoke to Yusuf Mehdi, Sr. VP of information services at MSN, who said:

“A lot of people think, ‘Hey, … Didn’t Google become the popular search engine? And don’t they just do a great job? And there’s no room for improvement.”‘ Mehdi said. Once people get a feel for Windows Live Search, Mehdi said, “They’re going to say, ‘Holy cow, I had no idea that search could get this much better!”‘

So is Microsoft making search that much better? The product might not be done, but it will give us a good idea.

The new search engine looks a lot less like a Google knock-off than MSN Search. It creates some of its own style and introduces some new ideas and tools for changing the way people can search.

As an example, I searched for a random celebrity with a lot of fan pages. You can see a few new search features in the image above.

First, check out the horizontal slider above the search results. That slider customizes the amount of detail on the results pages. If it is on the left, all that is displaying are page titles and URLs. You can see the middle setting is what you have come to expect from search results. Moving one more setting to the right adds a new link below each entry called “Search within this site.” Being able to customize the size of results help make scrolling faster or slower, which you’ll see is important.

That funny looking scroll bar between the results and the ads works a little differently than you’re used to. Microsoft has tossed out the entire idea of separate pages of results, and they load thousands of results on one page. The scroll functions make it able to be navigated. As long as you hold the scroll bar down, the results page moves down. When you release it, the scroll arrows orient themselves to the middle again. If you use a scroll mouse, this will feel similar to clicking the mouse wheel and moving up and down pages.

As you scroll up and down the page, the results numbers changes dynamically. You an see, the shot above is of numbers 14-16. The PPC ads on the right side also change dynamically based on what results are on the left. You can also click the “add to live.com” to add the search to your personalized page like a feed.

Speaking of feeds, you probably noticed the Feed link up on the navigation bar. Let’s take a look at it.

This side works similarly, but instead of ads, there’s a feed preview pane. Click the arrow on the result, and you can see the previews. If you click on results in the feeds section, you are directed to a Live Search cache of a feed entry. There’s a link to see more, which goes to the feed if it all works right. Feed search is something Google hasn’t really tapped into like this. I’m not sure if this is destined for greatness as it is, though. There’s not a good reason to click on Feed instead of Web. All the other parts of the search, like Images and Local, have specific and distinctive purposes for why a searcher might use them. The purpose of Feeds is pretty much the same as using a Web search.

The image search is slightly modified, so let’s take a look at that next.

Image searches are reworked a little too. Be sure to have broadband if you want to use it though. Again, the search engine tries to load all the images on one web page. The detail level slider at the top controls the size of the thumbnails. The side scrollbar works more conventionally. When mousing over an image it expands, like that image of Jessica in the white dress. The zoomed thumbnail gives details such as image resolutions and file size. While there is a link straight to the image’s webpage, clicking on the image itself takes to you a preview of it within the Live Search page.

Before wrapping up and looking at how Live can change search, check out the new gadgets Microsoft has implemented.

The only feature so far that seems to have a chance at changing the actual idea behind search is the new Microsoft Gadgets feature. The arrow on the right of the search categories will open up a screen of 40 macros that can modify searches. It looks like a tool that users will eventually be able to make and customize for themselves, perhaps even share with other users.

The Microsoft Gadget Macro thing is basically only a set of search criteria. It tells the engine to either prefer results or else exclusively use ones from specific sites or pages with certain keywords. Some of them search only certain sites, and some are a lot more flexible. I could add the Jessica Simpson search to the macro called “what did gawker says about that?” [sic] to find results on the list of pages included in it. Here are a couple screenshots of adding the macro.


Gawker Macro Added


Gawker Macro Installed

It created a new search category on the navigation bar. When you perform a search with that macro, a user needs to be in that search category to use it. The idea is almost a search filter. It lets users apply the advanced search criteria in the macro to every search they want, and it’s pretty easy.

That seems to be the extent of the improvements so far. So will any of these changes make somebody say, “Holy cow, I had no idea that search could get this much better!”? No way. Maybe some users will think the new look and feel are cool, but there isn’t a feature here yet that will revolutionize the way we search. The most innovative thing here is the use of macros, and the rest just kind of blend into the general search experience. The changes will, however, distinguish Microsoft’s search from the others. This could be important from the perspective of a searcher who prefers the look and feel of one product.

As far as optimization, the only thing that could change here is optimizing for macros. This could amount to looking at the most popular macros for your type of site and trying to add more preferred keywords. This would be even easier than guessing what keywords potential customers use. For macro’s that prefer specific sites, you might be challenged with trying to get your site included in the list.

I expect we’ll see more changes as the Microsoft Live site starts filling up with office and productivity software. Microsoft has superior Office software to integrate with their underdog search engine, but at the same time, Google still brings a superior search engine to integrate into their recently acquired Writely word processor. Microsoft has a history of successfully finding ways to integrate their products, and I think we may start seeing round 2 of the Google and Microsoft rivalry heat up as these products start to develop.

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