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Wednesday, March 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft offers more tools for search engine

Seattle Times technology reporter

Microsoft is trying to tackle its declining share in the search-engine market by introducing new tools it says will make Web searching easier and more efficient.

The search tools debuted late Tuesday on Microsoft's Windows Live service, at www.live.com, along with some cosmetic changes: The search page has a cleaner look with tabs at the top for news, images and other categories.

Microsoft wants to differentiate itself from Google and other search engines to attract more users. Right now, the company's MSN Search engine is in third place, behind Google and Yahoo!

"Our strategy is plain and simple," said Christopher Payne, an MSN Search corporate vice president. "We're trying to build the technical leadership to answer people's questions better, and then, hopefully, people will try it."

One new feature offers the ability to peek at a search result without having to open the Web page. Hovering the cursor over a link gives a snapshot of the result in a side window on the screen, but the snapshot doesn't automatically show the relevant text within the page.

To see that, a user must type words into a nearby box on the screen.

Microsoft is also introducing a way to customize the number of results that show up on a page. Fewer results on a page would appear larger and be easier to read.

The company is capping the maximum number of results at 250, or 1,000 for an image-based search, betting that no one really wants to sift through more than that. The move is risky in that it ratchets up the pressure for Microsoft to make sure those 250 results are the best and most relevant.

"We've made significant progress on the relevancy of our results and have to invest on improving that area," said Lisa Gurry, a product manager for the project. "The 250 number absolutely gives us the right level of depth."

Microsoft is also announcing a new toolbar with technology from Onfolio, a Cambridge, Mass., company Microsoft has acquired for an undisclosed amount.

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With Onfolio's product, which had been selling for $30, Microsoft users can collect search results and other content from Web sites and e-mail or post them to a Web log.

The moves come as Microsoft appears to be losing ground in the search-engine market.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, its market share dropped to 11 percent in January from 12.8 percent in January 2005.

Google's market share grew 1.1 percent during that period, to 48.2 percent, and Yahoo!'s share grew 0.9 percent to 22.2 percent.

Payne said Nielsen's measurements were accurate, and that Microsoft needs to innovate more to stand out. An example, he said, is a new tool that allows users to create a custom search by drawing only from pre-selected Web sites, such as a recipe or politics site.

"The engines, they look a lot alike and homogeneous," he said. "You're certainly going to see us push the envelope away from that."

One analyst, Matt Rosoff at Kirkland-based Directions on Microsoft, said he didn't think the changes would be enough to draw people from Google.

It will be hard to know for sure until the tools come out and people start using them, he said, but most users seem to prefer Google.

"The traffic figures, they just don't look good, and there's no disguising that," he said.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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