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Thursday, November 11, 2004

As Promised, MSN Releases Sincere Search

Tried the new MSN Search today, as you, dear reader, surely have done by now, too.

Capsule summary...

Is it good? Yes.

Is it cool? Yes.

Is it better than Google Search? In some ways, no. In other, important, ways: YES.

Using the product feels like a bit of a trip back in time, to when AltaVista came out with Raging Search. Or perhaps, much earlier, to a less cluttered, less spammy time, when information wanted to be found.

The MSN product clearly aims high, right at where search enthusiasts live, offering advanced features right out of the gate without making the interface confusing for the average user. Unlike AltaVista Raging Search, they haven't used the term "search enthusiast market" in their publicity. (Then again, what publicity? It seems to amount to leaking news on purpose to mainstream news outlets, feeding info to John Battelle, and posting cryptic comments on this blog.)

Ultimately, you're dead if you literally go directly after the elite as your market, but you do need to impress the elite and avoid talking down to the mass market if you hope to maintain credibility with an emerging generation of "always on" young users.

Google (and MSN is following the same route) targeted the elite as a PR strategy, but won over the mass market with ease of use. MSN may similarly win over the mass market because they understand that this market is growing ever more sophisticated. You can't get away with marketing to people who barely know how to turn on their computer. If Tara and Chris and Gary like it, chances are that more users might give it a whirl too. As of this writing, neither Tara Calishain nor Gary Price have had much to say yet. Chris Sherman's first assessment seemed cautiously lukewarm.

When playing with this new toy I could have thought I heard strains of the Moonglows' 1954 classic, Sincerely, drifting through the air. I harkened back to a simpler time, when search engine indexes weren't riddled with spam. When they didn't expect the user to be a complete dumbass (as we certainly saw with previous versions of MSN Search). When features were pleasing and information was plentiful.

Trying my Osler.com examples from last night, I found certain areas where MSN Search demonstrated clear superiority over Google Search. Power users have long lamented the fact that Google shows only a tiny proportion of which sites "link to" any given site when you use the link:www.example.com nomenclature. For Osler.com, Google displays 91 inbound links. MSN Search gives you the Fully Monty: it says 2,300. (The present site shows around 1,000 inbounds on Google Search; MSN Search gives us credit for 11,500. Now that's comprehensive.)

The sample search for "Douglas Rienzo" served 63 results on MSN Search. The top three results were journal articles or mentions; the fourth was Rienzo's bio at Osler.com. Google found 41 results. The disparity may be neither here nor there. A closer analysis would be required. Google's ranking had put Rienzo's bio at the very top.

With personalization sliders enabled on MSN Search to privilege freshness of page, Rienzo's bio falls to the eleventh result on the page, from fourth. It never rises higher than fourth no matter how "static" the setting.

Clearly, neither ranking is "correct." Users who know that they're looking for fresh articles would of their own accord adjust the setting. Those looking for static biographical pages on company websites might use different settings. All the more important that Microsoft is previewing this personalization technology. It's available by clicking on the "search builder link" from the MSN Search Beta home page, and then clicking on "results ranking." Up pops the interface with three "sliders," exactly the one that Gary Price stumbled on earlier.

The "personalization sliders" were a thrill to use for this search enthusiast. It may sound like a small thing, but setting them in my own way allowed some typically hard-to-find pages to bubble up to the first and second pages of the SERP's. But this feature does not yet go far enough. Since one of the key benefits of such personalization will be to stamp out spam, other variables should be controllable to really put the advanced searcher in the driver's seat. If a common spam technique du jour is high keyword density or stuffing keywords into h2 heading tags, then the savvy user might want to have a suite of settings which include discounting such techniques. Such a user might want to cycle through three or four searches quickly to see if they can uncover different information on the first couple pages of SERP's. Kind of like personalized metasearch - searching the same index, but with different algorithmic weightings.

As the closing bars of "Sincerely" continued to waft eerily through the room it morphed into harsh cover versions of the same song, and a sad premonition overcame me. This is as good as it's going to get for MSN Search. We wish them all the best, because a search tool this good will help a lot of users find the information they need. But MSN's index has yet to be put to the acid test; has yet to be pummelled with a systematic stream of spam. And the very reason they've come up with certain features (like better disclosure of all inbound links) is because they're way behind in the race, so they have to give us what we actually want, instead of what some corporate strategist thinks we should want.

The participation of this feisty "upstart" in the search wars certainly does put a strange spin on things. Wasn't it always Microsoft that sat back and refused to update its products because they had a virtual monopoly? While Google's pace of innovation has been breathtaking, they've resisted making certain changes or releasing certain information in order to avoid tipping off the competition -- or worse, simply because they can. So has Google already become like the Microsoft of search (not, as Battelle correctly insists, its Netscape)? Have they become fat, happy, and arrogant? A little company from Redmond hopes so.

MSN's sincere little search engine should blow the lid off and cause Google to do a little bit of soul-searching about how its core product serves an ever-more-sophisticated user. But the MSN Search technology will have to be very good if it's to get through even the first year of its life without being shown up as just another easily spammable wannabe.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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