A beta version of the search engine Microsoft Corp. is developing went live Thursday, offering users an interface and a set of features that make the product begin to resemble established search engines from competitors Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Ask Jeeves Inc. and America Online Inc. (AOL).
A less developed version of the MSN Search service that Microsoft began making available for public tryouts in July, was simply a search box without special features or functionality that returned results grabbed from an index of about 1 billion documents, a Microsoft official said.
But the beta version released Thursday has an index of over 5 billion documents and lets users narrow and customize their queries in a variety of ways, said Justin Osmer, an MSN Search product manager.
The MSN Search service is expected to be ready in final release in 2005 and will eventually replace the search engine technology that Microsoft currently licenses from Yahoo to power the MSN portal's search feature, he said. "Our overall goal with this beta and eventually with the final product is to help users find whatever information they want faster," Osmer said.
Charlene Li, a Forrester Research Inc. analyst, has tested the search engine and described the relevance of its results as being "not fantastic" but definitely adequate and "on par" with its competitors. The most significant thing is that Microsoft is getting close to having its own search engine, which will be the foundation for future enhancements, new features and integration with existing Microsoft products and services, Li said.
"It's good enough. It gets the job done. And it puts Microsoft at the table to play with everybody else," Li said. "The most important thing is Microsoft owns it, and because of that they can do lots of different things" going forward with it.
Some of the MSN Search beta service highlights are its ability to:
-- return specific answers, such as facts, definitions, conversions and calculations, to certain direct questions by tapping content from Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia;
-- launch specific actions from the MSN Search interface, such as listening to song samples and buying and downloading songs from MSN Music;
-- narrow search results according to various parameters, such as geographic location, news content, language, images, Internet domains, Web site address and Web pages' popularity or creation date.
Overall, the MSN Search beta service's features are generally available from other search engines, and Osmer acknowledged that Microsoft is hard at work to enhance these features and add new ones."We view this beta as just a starting point for us," he said.
A desktop search tool will be unveiled before the end of the year, and the plan is to have it tightly integrated with this search engine, to let users look for information as seamlessly as possible in their PCs and the Internet, Osmer said.
A beta version of the MSN Messenger instant messaging client already has a search bar built into it, an integration "we'll continue to expand upon as well," Osmer said. A comparison shopping feature wouldn't be out of the question, he said.
Also likely is enabling users to access the MSN Search service from wireless devices, Osmer said. "It's certainly our intention to make search available no matter where our customers are and where that information may reside, so down the road mobile devices absolutely could be a part of the strategy," he said.
With the unveiling of this beta service, Microsoft continues its march towards the front lines of the search engine battles, as it attempts to snatch search users and search advertising revenue away from its competitors.
In the second quarter, total U.S. Internet ad spending was about $2.37 billion, a 42.7 percent increase over the same period in 2003, according to a report issued in September by the Internet Advertising Bureau and Pricewaterhousecoopers LLP. Search-related ads were the largest category with $947 million, according to the report.
Search-related ads are those that advertisers buy to have them run along with search engine query results that are contextually related to the ads. For example, a sporting goods store might buy this type of ad to have them run when users query a search engine using keywords such as "baseball" or "football."
Meanwhile, in August, Google had the biggest share of Internet searches in the U.S. with 36.1 percent, according to comScore Networks Inc. It was followed by Yahoo with 30.6 percent. MSN came in a distant third with 14.4 percent. Rounding out the top-five were Time Warner Inc., which includes AOL, with 10.6 percent, and Ask Jeeves with 5.9 percent.
The beta of MSN Search is available at http://beta.search.msn.com.