MSN Search: Learning Lessons

Microsoft improved its MSN Search engine by, among other things, listening to its customers and making sure it was returning relevant results. Listening to customers and becoming more relevant will become even more dominant themes as we look to the future of online search.

Microsoft took the wraps off its new, improved MSN Search in February of 2005, amid much ballyhoo. The new version was supposed to offer more precise, more powerful results for visitors eager to find answers. But does it really deliver on its promise? First, let’s examine what it is supposed to include.

For one thing, while the search engine does index the Web, it also calls on some resources a little closer to home to answer certain questions. Microsoft Encarta, the company’s encyclopedia, provides answers to questions relating to geographical locations, historical and popular figures, definitions, facts, calculations, conversions and solutions to equations. And yes, as with Ask Jeeves, you really can type in a question and get an answer. For example, the question “Where is Zimbabwe?” yielded this result, which appeared at the top before any search listing: “Zimbabwe: location: Zimbabwe is located in southern Africa and is bordered by Mozambique to the east, Botswana to the west, South Africa to the south, and Zambia to the north.”

For music lovers trying to locate music clips, MSN Search also pulls information from MSN Music. Users should be able to type the name of a recording artist, song or album into MSN Search and automatically get links to music files and other content from MSN Music. Indeed, at the very top of the results for “Stevie Wonder,” I could click on a link to MSN Music that took me to a page with more links to all his songs, for purchase and download. Of course, it reacted a little differently to more obscure performers; while it turned up many links related to Leslie Fish, one of my favorite songwriters, MSN Music had apparently never heard of her (and given that a verse from one of her songs appeared in a book about Pretty Good Privacy, which is open source software, it might be just as well).

MSN Search boasts a library of more than 400 million images. I tried for something relatively obscure: sage blossoms (after all, it is the leaves of the plant that are mostly used for cooking; I’ve never seen a sage blossom in real life). The search engine found an excellent color image of a blooming sage from somebody’s blog. For those of you more interested in gadgetry, it also found two pages of images of DDR2 memory.

The Search Builder tool is immensely cool. It lets you control not only what phrases are searched for, but what site(s) or URLs are searched (or excluded), what country or region the site is hosted in, what language, and other variables. Sliding bars let you control such search factors as how frequently the site is updated (freshness), how popular the site is, and whether your keywords or key phrases match exactly or approximately. That kind of fine control was nearly impossible to achieve in the early days of Internet search.

The “Search Near Me” tool can leave a little to be desired if you’re looking for something obscure, though perhaps it wasn’t the fault of the search engine in this case. I searched for a relatively unusual item (inkle looms) that I knew was sold by a dealer within 100 miles. The first merchant returned was located in Texas; the second, North Carolina. Neither of those are within 100 miles of South Florida, my own location.

For the sake of completeness, I should also mention that MSN Search offers downloadable desktop and email searching, though the email search looks as if it only works with Outlook.

While some of this may seem a bit disappointing, it really is a significant improvement over the old version of the search engine. Microsoft first launched a search engine in 1998. To quote the company about that first release, “Web search wasn’t quite the big deal it is today. Back then, it was a nice feature to provide, and MSN teamed with LookSmart, and later, Inktomi – now part of Yahoo – for the necessary back-end search technology.” The company realized that they would want to bring search engine expertise and technology in house, and began exploring how to do this at the beginning of 2003.

The project officially started in March 2003, so the new engine was two years in the making. The search engine team, facing the usual kinds of staffing problems, decided to take an incremental approach as the most manageable. Its first index contained 24 documents; at the time the new MSN Search went live in February 2005, it boasted five billion documents.

What is particularly interesting is the important role that people outside of Microsoft played in the development of the search engine. To start with, MSN had all that information dating back to 1998 about what users search for, how they search, and how well MSN had satisfied their search needs. For example, the team found out that many users were unhappy with the number of ads in the interface. So they reduced the number of ads and provided a cleaner interface, with a home page somewhat reminiscent of Google’s. They took a revenue hit…and saw their approval rating rise 20 percent.

But that was just the beginning. MSN also called in “Search Champs,” about 30 influential technology enthusiasts from the field of search. Microsoft invited them to an in-depth preview of the search engine in October, and listened to their input about ways they could make the search engine even better. This was followed in November by an MSN Search blog that provided them with another major source of user feedback. Team members’ participation in online forums, and online feedback, surveys, and usability studies also played important roles.

So is MSN Search really better than the competition? That depends on what you’re looking for. For “Where is Zimbabwe?” in Google, rather than the one-sentence answer given by MSN Search, the first link goes to the CIA Fact Book – which is probably fine, unless you really just want to know where Zimbabwe is located, right now. Both engines do equally well when asked what the mass of the earth is, though.
As to the music, Google doesn’t have its own online music store, but it did an equally fine job directing me to Stevie Wonder’s own website. MSN Search’s results might be slightly more convenient if I was interested in purchasing MP3s of Stevie Wonder’s music; otherwise, it was clearly a wash. It is worth mentioning, however, that it is impressive that MSN Search is pulling results that are as good as Google’s (in this and other areas, as you will see).

Google fielded my image question just as well as MSN Search; the best image, again, was from somebody’s blog (though not the same blog that MSN Search found). And, in all fairness, Google’s local search did not exactly do any better than MSN Search did. The merchants MSN Search turned up at least seemed to be the sort that actually sold inkle looms, even if they weren’t local. Google’s listings were local…but they weren’t the sort to sell inkle looms. The first one, for example, was an electronics dealer, and apparently made it to the top of the results for using the word “inkling” on its website.

This was a rather eye-opening comparison for me. I had read a review of MSN Search that had been written right after the overhaul, by self-admitted online marketing professionals who spend all day every day online and consider themselves to be veteran Internet searchers. In addition to the searches I mentioned here, I tried some of the ones that they did, for which they had not been satisfied with the results from MSN Search. For example, MSN Search gave the mass of Jupiter as a ratio of the mass of earth, but did not give the earth’s mass; Google, on the other hand, gave the masses of both Jupiter and earth (in scientific notation). When I tried the search, I found that MSN Search had fixed that problem.

The MSN Search blog I mentioned above may help explain this. Also, MSN reportedly put up a Web page, Inside MSN, to collect user comments on MSN Search…and post them for everyone to see. Interestingly, though the page states that comments are edited and will not receive personal responses, plenty of criticism was displayed. This seems to be a sign that MSN Search – and, by extension, Microsoft – is taking consumer feedback seriously.

A better general search engine spells good news to SEOs and those who advertise with search engines. It’s another resource to use, another opportunity to be seen somewhere by a lot of people who are seriously trying to find something that the business owner can provide. Current search engine trends, which MSN will follow, should be even better news.

In March, MSN released another search engine, currently in beta at http://beta.shopping.msn.com. Rather than attempting to index everything, as most general search engines do, this one focuses on price comparisons and customer ratings. In other words, it is a search engine specifically aimed at shoppers.

To say that it faces a lot of competition is an understatement. Freestanding search engines for online shoppers include Shopping.com, Become.com, and Shopzilla. MSN Search isn’t the first general search engine to think of this, either; Google offers Froogle for price comparisons, while Yahoo has Yahoo! Shopping, and America Online features InStore.

This trend toward returning greater precision in search results from general search engines, and the creation of somewhat more specialized engines, will be helpful to consumers, advertisers, and SEOs. Search engine users will be able to target their searches more precisely…which means that advertisers and SEOs will be able to target their audience more precisely. This may result in fewer ad views, but the ones who actually view the ad will be more likely to click…and more likely to buy. Tighter targeting of your audience and listening to your customers is a lesson some businesses must learn the hard way; in this case, it is more than Microsoft and MSN Search who are benefiting from lessons learned.

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