First launched as a public beta in November 2004, MSN Search was long in coming. Rumors of Microsoft's Web search challenge to market leader Google have been brewing for years now. But unlike previous versions of the search tool on MSN's Web site, the new MSN Search was built from the ground up, using new search algorithms, a new Web crawler, and a new indexing engine that the company hopes will set it apart from the competition. Naturally, MSN Search has a long hill to climb: Google, enshrined as one of the IT world's most recognizable brands, isn't going to go down without a fight.

Fortunately for MSN, however, the new MSN Search has a lot going for it. In this review, I'd like to highlight some of the features that I feel set MSN Search apart from its competitors, chiefly Google, and discuss how this competitive advantage might help them steal away some market share from the industry leader going forward.

I spoke about MSN Search (Figure) recently with Larry Grothaus, the Lead Product Manager for MSN Marketing. Grothaus discussed what MSN's plans were for MSN Search, and how the service would likely change over time. Indeed, even since the public beta began last fall, some features have already evolved. "The UI has changed since the beta," Grothaus told me. "One of the things we've added is a drop down [Search] box to give people a little bit more of a vertical ability on their queries." The drop-down box appears as a part of a green button marked as "Search" by default; when you click the drop-down box, other options, such as Web, News, Images, Look up word, Encarta, Stock Quotes, Find Movies, Shopping, and Music appear (Figure).

Getting answers to real questions

Arguably, the most amazing feature in MSN Search is its ability to answer actual questions, thanks to integration with the voluminous Encarta back-end. Microsoft calls this feature "Encarta results," and you can access it directly by clicking the Encarta link above the search box. But you can also simply type in a question without directly accessing the Encarta link. The answers you get are surprisingly intelligent.

A simple example: As with Google, you can type a short math equation (e.g. 2+2) into MSN Search and get the answer (4) returned. However, MSN Search takes it much further and can solve algebraic equations. Type in a Google-buster like "2y^3 + 4y -10 = 9" and MSN Search will tell you that x=y=1.805787 (Figure). Type in "cos 45 degrees" and MSN Search will tell you that cos 45deg = 0.707107. "Now this is fun stuff," Grothaus told me, leading me through some of the amazing searches you can perform. Oh yes, it goes way further than simple equations.

How about some conversions? Type in "how many quarts are in a gallon?" and MSN Search will reply with 1 gallon = 4 quarts. How many centimeters in a foot? 30.48 of course.

OK, that's fun. But there's more. How about a direct question? Let's try: "Who shot John F. Kennedy?" MSN Search says that "Lee Harvey Oswald, a former United States Marine, was arrested for Kennedy's assassination but was shot and killed by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby before he could stand trial. Later, a government investigation (the Warren Report) concluded that Oswald acted alone, and no one else was ever charged with taking part in the crime." It then provides a link for more information about JFK. Who won SuperBowl XXXVIII? The New England Patriots, of course.

You want definitions? Search for "define debacle." The result? "Chaotic failure." You can also ask about geographical data ("What is the mass of Jupiter?") and nutrition ("How many calories are there in spinach?") as well.

"It's a great tool for helping people get to answers quickly that they know are from a trusted source," Grothaus said. "We're going to continue to add more and more information into this. Right now, it's based on somewhat of a tablet set up for asking questions. But there are a couple of projects out of Microsoft Research that you may be familiar with--Ask MSR, for example--and a lot of those projects take a natural language approach. So if you look at asking a question like, 'who killed Abraham Lincoln?', you would basically go into the algorithmic engine, look at the entire index of Web source material, and it would sort out the words 'Abraham Lincoln,' 'killed,' and look for them in proximity to each other. You'll get results like Mary Todd Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. It will then analyze how many times it sees these words are clustered together and come up with algorithmic predictions. John Wilkes Booth might be a 75 percent likelihood of being the answer, whereas Mary Todd Lincoln might be 23 percent, or whatever. We're not sure yet how it will end up as an end user experience. Maybe we'll show the proportionate weighting so people know there's a possibility of other answers. Those are things we're looking at to incorporate down the road."

So what about Google? Frankly, the search leader offers nothing like this. For certain types of queries ("Who shot Abraham Lincoln?"), you can sometimes get a rough approximation by clicking "I'm feeling lucky" but there's no real answering of questions occurring there, of course.

Near Me

Another unique MSN Search feature, Near Me, helps you find results by physical proximity to your current location. It's accessed via a prominent blue button on the MSN Search that's labeled "Near Me," of course. "We determine what's near you two different ways," Grothaus said. "If you go into Settings, you can set your location. [This can be a ZIP code or a plain English location like "Boston, Massachusetts."] If you don't set a location, MSN Search will try to do reverse IP lookup, which is pretty sophisticated. If you travel quite a bit, you can just leave that empty and it will always return relevant search results based on where you are geographically."

So what is Near Me good for? Well, you can perform some obvious searches, such as "police station" to try and find a local police station. In my case, the first search result pointed to a site that didn't exist. The second was for a police station near my town. The third? It was a link to a news story about a bombing at an Iraqi police station (which is not near my town). Interestingly, you can also use a conveniently located drop-down box at the top right of the search results page to limit the results to places near major cities such as Boston, New York, and Phoenix (Figure).

You might also use Near Me for finding such things as restaurants. For example, we go to a restaurant called the Village Manor fairly frequently, and if I search for "Village Manor restaurant" and then click Near Me, the first result is a page at RestaurantPage.com that includes a link to the restaurant's actual Web page. Not bad.

"To give you an idea of what went into this when we were building it," Grothaus said, "we built our own algorithmic search engine from scratch for this release. We worked on it for about 18 to 20 months, built our own crawler, built our own indexing engine." Now that MSN Search has gone live, it's using those new technologies, whereas it previously used Yahoo's algorithmic results. "We'll continue to grow our index and ensure that we're giving people more relevant results," Grothaus added. "When we went through and built that index, as we went through the Web and crawled it, we looked for information on Web pages that could help us geo-tag those documents. So documents in our index actually have geo-tags associated with them so when you hit that Near Me search, you're relating your search back to the geo-tags within that index."

The geo-tagging feature is an example of why Microsoft felt it was important to build its own index and algorithmic engine. If the company had stuck with its previous relationship with Yahoo, that's not a feature they could have easily added. "We believe that building that engine places a great foundation in place for future innovations," Grothaus told me.

So what about Google? Does the market leader have anything like Near Me? Not that I can find. In its bid to keep Google.com as Spartan and clean as possible, it's often hard to find features the service offers. Google's Directory feature lets you search by categories. And of course, you can always search Google for something like "[Restaurant name] restaurant [Town name]." When I did this for the Village Manor, the results were similar to the Near Me search noted above. But like MSN Search, I didn't get the restaurant's actual home page on the first page of results, which is curious when you consider that its URL is http://www.village-manor.com/. (UPDATE: Google does have a hard-to-find service called Google Local, currently in beta (of course), that helps you find local businesses and services on the Web. It's not really as comprehensive as what Microsoft plans for Near Me, but it does in fact work pretty well if you want to do things like find a certain kind of restaurant in your area.)

Google's unsophisticated approach to searching means you have to do all the work. Clearly, Microsoft is trying to take MSN Search to a future where the underlying system will be more intelligent and not force you to understand how to carefully craft search requests. But even today, MSN Search has the potential to be more relevant, because its geography-based search results are literally returned ordered by proximity. A search for "police station Seattle" isn't particularly helpful if there are 25 of them. But a search of "police station" that literally returns the nearest station is hugely desirable. They're working on it.

"We think this feature is a good start," Grothaus said, "and now consumers can begin kicking the tires on it a bit. We will continue to refine the results. But having that geographic back-end in place will be super helpful when we start looking at GPS-enabled cell phones and cars, and those kinds of scenarios. So I could be driving down the road [in the future] and my car will now where I'm at thanks to GPS. If I do a search, it makes sense for it to return the results that are nearest me. Right now, it's just a great foundation piece that we're putting in place."

Search Builder

Search builder is another interesting new feature, and if you've ever tried to fine-tune Google search results using that search engine's Byzantine syntax system, you'll understand why. When you click the Search Builder link on the MSN Search page, you're provided with a pop-up window (Figure) that helps you fine-tune a search using simple graphical tools. As you navigate down the choices--site/domains to include or exclude, countries and regions to include or exclude, languages, and so on--Search Builder populates the search box with the exact syntax needed to create the search you're attempting. For example, to restrict a search for Windows XP to Microsoft's Web site, you might type in Windows XP site:www.microsoft.com assuming you knew that was how it worked. But since you're a human being and shouldn't be bothered with that kind of miscellanea, you can use Search Builder instead.

"Search Builder is a great tool for bringing complex Boolean searches to the masses," Grothaus told me. "Instead of having to remember and type operators and hard-coded brackets, we have a tool that help's people quickly refine their search and get to the information they're after. It's basically a query builder."

Let's see how this can be used. Let's say you want to find out information about Halo 2 on the Xbox, and you want to only find information that comes directly from Microsoft. First, you click the Search Builder link to access the tool, and then type "Halo 2" into the text box in the Search items tab. Then, you can fine-tune that search by pulling down the drop-down list box and choosing from "All of these items," "Any of these terms," "This exact phrase," and "None of these terms." Since we want exactly "Halo 2" and not "Halo," we might choose "This exact phrase" and then click Add to search to add it to the search. Next, we can also add "Xbox" and click Add to search again. If you look at the search box, it should now read "Halo 2" "Xbox".

Next, navigating to the Site/Domain tab, you can specify to only search Microsoft.com by selecting "Find only Web pages from this site or domain" and then typing "www.microsoft.com" into the text box. Then, click "Add to search." The search box will now read "Halo 2" "Xbox" site:www.microsoft.com. Now, click Search normally to perform the search. Voila. For more intricate searches, you might exclude certain terms, or look for links in particular languages only.

Now, all of this is possible with Google, of course. But do so such a search, you need to access their Advanced Search feature on a separate page and then navigate through a long list of choices. By providing a simple pop-up window that helps you build a search, Microsoft's solution is more elegant and easier, and it actually helps you learn how to better use the tool by showing you how different options affect the search syntax.

MSN Music integration

Not surprisingly, MSN Search integrates with MSN Music (see my review), Microsoft's new Web-based online music service. So if you search MSN Search for an artist name, like Collective Soul, you'll see an area near the top of the search results that's called out with two orange chevrons, pointing to a link to the artist on MSN Music (Figure). To the right of that link, the top three downloaded songs for that group are highlighted. And when you click on the artist name or song name links, you're directly to MSN Music, where you can find out more information, purchase a CD, listen to song samples, or purchase songs or complete albums. If you click the "Sample" link next to one of the song titles, MSN Music loads the artist page and the selected song plays back.

That's neat, but going forward, the integration with MSN Music will be even more pervasive. "What we're looking at down the road is allowing for direct interaction with the [search results] page, so you can play music samples directly from it, and not have to be redirected to MSN Music," Grothaus told me.

The cynical might find this sort of integration self-serving, but in real-world use, this sort of functionality offers a huge advantage over Google. "When we were developing MSN Music, people said, 'I always go to a search page and type in an artist's name, and then after I find it, I have to go find a place to buy the album. The nice thing about having that integration [in MSN Search] is that I can not only find information on an artist but I can do other things I want to do, which is most typically buying an album or song."

News searches and Newsbot

Using the News item in the Search pull-down box, or the News link above the search box, you can search for news stories. So, for example, if you're interested in the recent election in Iraq, you might type in "Iraq elections." The results are a collection of stories from such places as the Washington Times, TIME Magazine, the Financial Times, and even the US Department of State (ahem).

If you do happen to perform a default search for something that results in a number of news items being returned, those news items will be called out using the same double chevron used for MSN Music results. For example, when I searched for "Tom Brokaw," three news items about the famous ex-newscaster appear (Figure), along with links to something called "News Home" (see below) and other news stories about Mr. Brokaw.

This feature is handy if you're looking for a particular news story, but most people don't read the news that way. Not surprisingly, MSN, like Google, has a news aggregator that scans the most current news headlines from around the world and collects them in a central place. MSN's version is called Newsbot, and it can be found on the MSNBC Web site. This is the page you get to when you click the "News Home" link described above.

Newsbot aggregates content from over 4800 Internet-based news sources and presents it in an attractive, news site-like display (Figure). Like any news site, Newsbot offers topics like World, US, Business, and Sports. But it also offers some interesting community-like topics, such as Most Popular News. And as you click on news stories, Newsbot will remember the types of articles you tend to read and will start suggesting similar stories. So, if like me, you tend to go to the technology news all the time, it will make that your Newsbot front page. Nice.

"Newsbot is a cool tool," Grothaus said. "It creates a more personalized experience for you the more you use it." Like the Near Me feature in MNS Search itself, Newsbot is an attempt at making the Web more personalized, and will be improving over time. So far, it looks impressive.

Google News, also in beta, is an attempt to provide a similar news aggregation service that polls approximately 4500 online sources. However, Google News doesn't offer any personalization features at all, beyond the ability to generate email alerts based on topic searches.

Image searches

The MSN Search Image search feature is also nicely done. While it appears to work much like Google's image search feature at first, MSN has added a few handy and unique touches. Let's say you're searching for images of a celebrity like Michael Jackson. According to MSN Search, that image search returns over 3200 results. At the top of the first results page, however, you can filter the results by size (Large, Medium, or Small), display only color images, or display only black and white images. There are just over 200 black and white images of Michael Jackson, for example. Grothaus says MSN Search is currently indexing over 400 million images on the Web.

So how does Google do? Google finds a whopping 74,100 Michael Jackson images, and like MSN Search, it does offer Large, Medium, and Small filtering. But you can't display only color or black and white images, and good luck finding what you want in a list of images that long. On the other hand, more is arguably "better" when it comes to search results, though "relevancy" trumps volume.

MSN Toolbar Suite integration

If you're using the MSN Toolbar Suite beta (see my preview), and I do recommend it over other desktop search products, it won't surprise you to realize that MSN Search integrates with that product as well. If you go to search.msn.com, type in a query and hit Search, MSN Search will display a search results page in Internet Explorer, as you might expect. But it will also duplicate that search up in the MSN toolbar in IE that was installed along with the rest of the suite. Using that toolbar, you can revisit past searches at any time (Figure), which can be handy.

Conclusions

MSN Search is a work in progress, but it already includes a number of features that make it superior to Google. What I don't have a handle on yet is how MSN's search results stack up against those of Google, though I suspect we'll soon see some interesting discussions about that topic. Whether MSN's advantages will translate to more market share also remains to be seen: Google is still one of the world's most well-known brands, and is widely liked and used. And certainly, "google.com" is a lot easier to type than "search.msn.com," though one might argue that MSN's search tools are also directly available from msn.com, which is one of the shortest domain names around. And with its integration with MSN's many other products and services, MSN Search will surely get some traction.

The future is hard to see. But just as analysts and the tech press once argued that Internet Explorer wasn't a strong enough contender to challenge Netscape Navigator, I think we're going to see a lot of people come around to MSN Search over time. It's not an easy task to topple a dominant market force, but it's possible. And honestly, this is a Web-based service we're talking about here. It's not clear yet that a company like Google can really build the sort of timeless brand that product companies like BMW, Apple, and Gillette offer. My bet is that Google will fall, eventually, and that MSN Search, at the least, will be one of the reasons, and one of the beneficiaries, of that fall. In the meantime, give MSN Search a whirl. I think you might be surprised.