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Microsoft Launches Specialized Search Engine

Windows Live Academic Search scours the Web for journal articles, academic papers, and notes and slides from scholarly conferences.

Aaron Ricadela

April 14, 2006

3 Min Read

Microsoft may be lagging in the search market, but give its engineers credit for moving fast to catch up.

The software company launched a new search engine for academic journals last week, and while it's yet another example of Microsoft trailing Google in online software (digital maps and desktop searches also come to mind), Microsoft is showing what looks like a new willingness to take some chances and loosen up its release schedules.

The beta version of Windows Live Academic Search lets users scour the Web for journal articles, academic papers, and notes and slides from scholarly conferences in the fields of computer science, electrical engineering, and physics. It has deals with groups such as the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to index content from their journals. You have to subscribe, but it's still a useful tool for researchers, students, librarians, and journalists who need to narrow the Web to a specific area of interest. The site competes with Google Scholar, which covers a broader range of subjects.

The academic search engine performs some tricks Google's can't, says Justin Osmer, a senior product manager for search at Microsoft, citing the ability to mouse over a result to see an abstract, and the use of authors' names as hot links to their other published work. Those admittedly aren't as big a deal as content and depth, but at least Microsoft is in the game.

Microsoft also has set its engineers free to cook up broader Web search functions for Windows Live, the site that eventually will replace MSN Search as the company's standard-bearer for finding things on the Web. Microsoft is experimenting with novel ways to improve searches for advertisers and users, including pairing search terms with demographic information doled out by MSN subscribers, usability features like a scroll bar to peruse results, and search engine macros for power users. "Not all of them are going to work," says Gary Flake, a technical fellow at Microsoft. "Not all of them are going to resonate with users." But the point is that Microsoft is finally willing to try some things online it doesn't consider sure bets.

Losing Share

Search StandingsThat's important because Microsoft has some serious catching up to do in the search market. In February, Google's share of Internet search queries rose to more than 42%, from 36% a year earlier, according to market researcher comScore Networks. Yahoo's share fell to 27.6% from 31% a year ago, while Microsoft's MSN Search hit a lowly 13.5% share, down from a little more than 16%.

What's more, Google earns more from each search on its site, says Chuck Richard, an analyst at Outsell, which researches the market for business-to-business advertising. Advertisers rate Google's ad programs as more effective and pay more for them, he says.

Microsoft has taken steps to catch up. It's readying new software to match advertisers with ad prices. In February, it acquired MotionBridge, a maker of search software for cell phones. Last month, it launched a beta version of Windows Live Search, which is supposed to add some dazzle with features like keeping a list of personalized queries or tailoring searches by specific categories such as news or shipping.

Google won't stand still. Its researchers are forging ahead on complex search problems like improving the user experience on cell phones, displaying graphical pages including time lines in addition to lists of results, and tuning its search engine for speech recognition.

So, Microsoft has donned the mantle of the underdog in search. "We're further along toward matching the industry leader, who's been in the industry for years," says Lisa Gurry, Microsoft's marketing director at MSN. That defense rings hollow. If the company can keep up the pace of innovation, though, its results may start speaking for themselves.

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