February 11, 2003 11:54 AM PST

MSN gets on search bandwagon

Web portal MSN is testing a new search service that touts faster, tidier results, in what is the latest development in a fast-moving contest to help people find what they're looking for online.

The Microsoft-owned division launched a test site for MSN Search on Tuesday that omits banner advertisements and a large navigation column for the MSN network, freeing up more room on the page to display query results. The new site also says that it can display results 65 percent faster than before.

"At the end of the day we have to focus on what users want, and that's getting results quickly," said Parul Shah, product manager for MSN. She added that the company makes regular changes to the search service.

The changes come only days before chief rival Yahoo is expected to outline plans for an updated search service at its annual conference with financial analysts. Part of the announcement may cover Yahoo's designs for its proposed acquisition of Inktomi, whose technology powers Web search for third-parties, including MSN.

All of the major Internet publishers have turned their gaze on Web search because of its money-making power. In partnership with pay-for-performance ad companies such as Overture Services, LookSmart and Google, major Web portals make money when people click on sponsored listings within search results, a model that has shown to be lucrative for all parties involved. Commercial search emerged as the bright spot in online advertising in 2002, nearly doubling in total sales from the previous year, according to estimates from financial analysts.

But to draw commercial partners and advertisers, search services must prove their technology worthy of mass audiences, an honor that Google holds. To compete, nearly every search company including Inktomi, AltaVista, HotBot, FAST Search & Transfer and AskJeeves have updated their technology in recent months, serving up faster, more relevant results.

"All of the major search engines are working very, very hard to catch Google if not in perception but in by providing a viable alternative," said Chris Sherman, associate editor of industry newsletter SearchEngineWatch.com. "The truth is most of the major search services have improved a lot, and all of them are good contenders as an alternative to Google."

MSN says that "more people use MSN Search than any other search service," according to figures from researcher ComScore Media Metrix. But figures from an alternate market research firm, Nielsen/NetRatings, show that Google claims this title, reaching about 37.3 million people in the United States in the month of December. Yahoo Search follows with 36.5 million visitors, and MSN Search is third with 34.3 million.

Illustrating its power, Google was recently named the leading brand in 2002 over names like Apple Computer and Coke, according to marketing company Interbrand.

Still, Shah said that MSN Search draws 50 million visitors around the world per month. Many people estimate that MSN Search draws such a wide audience because it commands the Internet browser market, which by default points to the service when people first log on or mistype a Web address into the navigation bar. Sherman said that MSN is constantly improving its search algorithms and has built a worthy engine.

Among the other improvements, MSN Search is offering a spell-checker for those people who type in commonly misspelled words. The service also highlights the query term in search listings to give people a better idea of the context around any given result. MSN draws search results from Inktomi, Overture and LookSmart.

 

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