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Originally published September 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 27, 2007 at 12:19 PM

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Microsoft rolling out revamped Live Search

Microsoft, the laggard in Internet search, isn't aiming to catch market leader Google in one leap. Rather, the company is introducing incremental...

Seattle Times technology reporter

Searching for relevance

Here are some of the new features in Microsoft's Live Search engine:

Celebrity rankings: The search engine combs the Web to develop an index of sentiment about top celebs and determine whether their stars are rising or falling.

Authoritative health info: Using technology from its Medstory acquisition, searches for health topics will separate and highlight results from trusted medical sources.

Maps: New mapping and directions results provide real-time estimates of how traffic conditions will affect a given route. Directions also include details such as, "if you cross Fourth Street, you've gone too far."

Microsoft, the laggard in Internet search, isn't aiming to catch market leader Google in one leap. Rather, the company is introducing incremental improvements to its Live Search service that it hopes will cause users to choose its product more frequently.

The improvements, to be rolled out in stages in the next month, are designed to make search results more relevant and enhance the results in several key categories, such as entertainment, shopping and health care.

"Nothing made me think, 'Wow, people are going to suddenly abandon Google or Yahoo in droves and head over to Microsoft,' " said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, a Web site that tracks the industry.

Microsoft says its goal is to encourage people who are using its Live Search service to continue doing so. It points to the large numbers of people who find their way to the service through the MSN portal and other online services such as e-mail and instant messaging.

Brad Goldberg, general manager of search-product management and marketing, said 40 percent of all Internet searchers use Live Search, but the service accounts for only about 11 percent of all queries. Google had 56.5 percent of queries last month, and Yahoo, the No. 2 search engine, had 23.3 percent.

Microsoft's own research shows most are satisfied with Internet search, even though the data suggest they shouldn't be, Goldberg said. Half of all queries have to be refined and 40 percent of them are abandoned unanswered, he said.

"We think there's a lot of opportunity to continue to make search better," Goldberg said.

In the past year, the company has worked to improve the relevance of its search results. This is a tricky thing to track because relevance can mean different things to different people, and because no third party has an objective way to measure relevance from one search engine to another.

Microsoft says it has made great strides, pointing to internal research.

"The arms race has been going on and we believe with this release we definitely are as competitive as Google when it comes to core relevance," said Satya Nadella, corporate vice president in the Search and Ad Platform Group. He added that the internal research shows Microsoft surpasses Yahoo.

Sullivan, who was briefed in advance of Microsoft's improvements, was not impressed, noting that all the search companies do internal research on relevancy.

"Not surprisingly, they typically find that they do very well on their internal testing," he said.

What's more, the fact that Microsoft has now achieved parity with Google is not a compelling reason for people to switch to Live Search, he said. But it could help keep users from leaving Live Search for Google or Yahoo.

Nadella, who took over the engineering side of the search business in March, said Microsoft has also increased the size of the index Live Search scours, and its ability to detect misspellings and searchers' intentions, among other things. A query for "The Office" now first brings up the NBC comedy rather than Microsoft's own software, he said.

Four key search categories — shopping, local and maps, health care and entertainment — account for 40 percent of all searches, Goldberg said. Microsoft is trying to present its results in these categories as more than just the "10 blue links" that search engines traditionally return. The results pages resemble usable content rather than links to content.

For example, someone searching for a digital camera would be taken to a Live Search results page that scans reviews from sites across the Web to create an "opinion index," broadly summarizing and presenting sentiment about the product. The page also lists the product's features, displays photos and shows comments posted about the product — all excerpted from elsewhere on the Web.

"We see search as becoming more and more the navigational model for the Web, and you'll start to see this merging between search and browse," Goldberg said.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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