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Microsoft Aims For Google With Live Search Upgrade

While some improvements are a bit of a catch-up with Google and Yahoo, others take Microsoft beyond what those search engines offer today.
After promotions helped spike Microsoft's share of Web searches earlier this year, the company is again on the downslide, losing ground to Yahoo and Google, according to numbers from ComScore and Hitwise. Microsoft may be down, but it's not giving up the fight. The company Wednesday announced major revisions to its Live Search product that may help even the score.

"It's really about richer and deeper search results," says Derrick Connell, Microsoft's general manager of Live Search. "Our philosophy is, give them the things they're asking for and then they'll do more queries with us." Microsoft recently hired a consulting firm to have consumers compare Google and the new Live Search without knowing which was which, and says the consumers found negligible gaps in the functionality and experience of the two search engines.

Live Search's improvements, which will gradually go live between now and the end of October, include a four-fold increase in its index size, the ability to return structured results with certain keyword searches, new ways to filter and refine results, and a tweaked ranking algorithm that takes into account user behavior. Some of it is a bit of catch-up with Google and Yahoo, while other improvements take Microsoft beyond what those two search engines do today.

Connell admits Microsoft's old search engine needed improvement, especially with regard to relevance. A search for "Cratoon" Network wouldn't return the Cartoon Network homepage as the first result. A search for Master Park wouldn't find MasterPark airport parking in Seattle, as it does now. Will Smith used to bring back results from Smith College instead of the actor. With the new Live Search, these problems and more have been largely solved.

Live Search's improved data centers allow Microsoft to plug new servers in on the fly and have them self-configure, adding scalability and improving results. A new version of Microsoft's RankNet ranking engine expands its capability to figure out what links users are following. Microsoft also tweaked user-facing technology, adding structured results so that it returns things like local movie times upon a search for Harry Potter. The search engine's underlying spell checker, thesaurus, and ability to determine plural words also got overhauls.

Still, it may take more than technology to catch a search engine that's become a verb -- and neither marketing nor tools for site administrators and advertisers are included in this round of upgrades. According to Hitwise, Microsoft's market share dropped from a high point of 9.9% in June to 8% last month, the lowest point in a year. ComScore, meanwhile, estimates Microsoft has an 11.3% share of all Web searches, a drop of 1% since last month. Microsoft implies that these stats are a bit misleading, citing studies that show Live Search being used by about 38% of all searchers at some point each month. However, the hits get the advertisers and bring in the money, and the hit count is Microsoft's weak point.

Microsoft's banking on its vertical search strategy to make gains and bring Live Search strength in areas where Google is not yet entrenched. The new Live Search will have expanded focuses in shopping, entertainment, health, local searches, and maps.

The product search engine may be the most dramatically improved. It brings sentiment analysis, technology once relegated to high-end enterprise search engines, to the masses. To create what Microsoft calls an "opinion index," Live Search crawls the Web and stores opinions and reviews it finds on Web sites like Amazon, ePinions, or even blogs and deciphers whether the reviews are positive or negative by using natural language processing techniques that determine the meaning of content based on digital dictionaries and linguistic rules. The sentiment is then categorized based on common keywords extracted from the reviews. So, for example, a camera might be rated for its price, photo quality, and ease of use, but the reviews come from the entire Web rather than just Amazon or wherever.

Local search includes improvements in business look-up, where Microsoft has partnered with companies that have significant amounts of rich business information at their disposal, like Zagat and its restaurant reviews. Now, business searches return with anything from hours of operation to menus. Microsoft's map search, which previously had two search bars, now has a more intuitive one and can even reroute driving directions based on real-time traffic. There's also a feature that shows directions to an address from multiple points of origin, much like directions to a party.

The new entertainment search functionality brings a few key features specific to searches on famous people. For example, search for Justin Timberlake and the engine will return with the latest buzz about his life, images, a biography, a discography, and a list of the movies in which he's acted, as well as something Microsoft calls xRank, which compares who's hot versus who's not by volume of searches. Video search gets a new improvement in the way of preview videos. Hovering over a video result allows searchers to see short previews -- snippets of each scene of a movie -- inline with results without having to go to another page. The preview function is based on a technology that senses scene changes.