Anyone who regularly searches the Internet knows the common frustrations. Ask a search engine for one thing, and it often gives you another. Try locating a local business or product online, and you must re-type the words of your search each time you enter a new window or website.
With the newest version of the search engine, MSN Search, the company predicts users will notice richer, more diverse content. Its search functionality has been upgraded to integrate new interpretive search methods and tabs that make it easier and faster to find information in a variety of ways. Also, the search engine puts a wealth of up-to-date news, music and video clips one mouse-click away.
Use of Search has increased by one-third in the past six months alone. The number of unique users is also up by a third since February, making it the No.2 search engine in the United States* and No.1 in the United Kingdom**. MSN expects this momentum to continue with the new features and added convenience.
“People don’t have high expectations for search engines. They’ll often keep going to the same site, regardless of its effectiveness or ease of use,” said Bill Bliss, Search general manager. “Search is breaking this pattern by offering results and conveniences that make it indispensable.”
One of the keys to the new version is integration. The search engine offers one-stop searching through four different on-screen tabs: Web, MSNBC News, MSN eShop, and MSN Yellow Pages. Users enter a query in one spot, and Search conducts a type-specific search in each of these areas, without the user having to re-enter the same query again.
“When people are doing searches, they might be better served by searching in another location in MSN, but they don’t know where to look,” Bliss said. “The tabs make it super easy to search in different areas without jumping among websites.”
Search also integrates video and audio clips from MSNBC online news service and Microsoft’s WindowsMedia.com. Users can type in the name of their favorite band or singer and get one-click access to information, including links to sample songs or a list of top albums. The WindowsMedia.com site contains song and video clips from thousands of A-list artists, such as Madonna, U2, Britney Spears, Eminem and Moby.
In addition to the clips, users can access biographies and other information about artists or buy their latest releases. By clicking on the eShop tab, users get up-to-date information on prices and availability from online vendors. For example, one of the most popular searches on MSN Search is for “dogs.” Now, users not only get related websites, but they will also find products from eShop that relate to dogs – like dog treats or dog toys.
“Rather than bouncing a dog lover off to an online store, Search contacts eShop using back-end server technology (XML - extensible markup language, a universal computer language for data exchange) to display the results,” Bliss said.
The integration doesn’t stop there. Search offers video news clips and stories, which are updated twice a day. About 300 stories a day are provided by MSNBC.
Breaking news is one of the most popular types of searches, Bliss said. For example, queries on Search about the Concorde increased dramatically during the week following the crash of one of the supersonic planes earlier this year.
In addition to integration, the new Search uses recent advances in search technology, incorporating human intelligence and intuition to make it easier and faster to find information on the Internet.
Search helps determine the information users want by comparing their queries to the preferences of other users. It then separates the information into categories and ranks the categories based on the preferences of other users over the past month. If most people who type in “Bush,” are looking for information on the presidential candidate, Search will display links to information on George W. Bush first. Other categories of links for the rock band Bush, singer Kate Bush or Bush Furniture will receive lesser rankings.
The monthly updates of user preferences ensure that the rankings reflect seasonal changes. In November, for example, recipes for cooking turkey get more hits than those with tourist information for the eastern Mediterranean country of the same name.
Human editors create additional ways to link users to the correct information, even if users misspell their queries. Common misspellings are linked to topics on the Search database. Similarly, editors will link queries each fall for “World Series” to the appropriate team sites and other materials posted on MSN.
“Our editors are constantly scanning the query logs to discover what people are looking for,” Bliss said. “The human mind creates links between words and concepts that a computer on its own simply can’t duplicate. At Search, we use human editors to incorporate a level of meaning into the search process to make sure users get the results they expect faster, easier and in the richest possible context.”
Linking users to the correct information also requires a global perspective. Search tailors the information it provides based on the language spoken by individual users, where they live, and the general preferences of their region or nation. The search engine, for example, knows a user in The UK who is looking for information on “football” is probably more interested in soccer than the American variety of the sport. And Australians want content from the United Kingdom and America, Bliss explained.
“Everyone wants access to English language content, and yet they want to make sure content from the United States doesn’t overwhelm content from their region of the world,” he said. “MSN Search is able to perform this balancing act.”
* Media Metrix custom report, August 2000
** Media Metrix Australia and MMXI Europe Custom Report, Aug 2000.