July 31, 2003 2:19 PM PDT

Microsoft.com revamps search

Microsoft updated its corporate Web search technology this month with in-house software, its latest effort to catch up with innovations in the navigation tools market.

In a July 21 article on the software giant's home page, the company owned up to the fact that search was rated the No. 1 source of angst by visitors of its corporate Web site. As a result, the company said it developed an improved product and information search that's faster, more relevant, and "100 percent Microsoft technology."

"Microsoft Search has always run 100 percent on Microsoft technology," a company representative said. "This latest version (Search 3.0) simply takes advantage of the newest, most cutting-edge technology that Microsoft is developing."

The new architecture and updated search interface were built with Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server 2003, Windows Server 2003 and Natural User Interface Web services. The company launched the system July 13 in the United States and throughout its 40 foreign-language sites.

As the largest corporate Web site, Microsoft.com fields more than 28 million search queries per month, according to the company. After making about 25 incremental changes to its search services in the last two years, people still complained that they had a hard time finding information they needed from the site.

"Searching Microsoft.com was a real problem; using Google would sometimes get you better results," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

"Microsoft has identified search as one of the most important things people do on the Internet," Rosoff added. "One of its old taglines was: Information at your fingertips. Not having strong in-house technology was hampering that goal."

As a result, Microsoft devoted additional research and development to search this year, both for corporate use and Web navigation. Popular search engines such as Google and commercial search providers such as Overture Services have fueled a resurgence in Web navigation and have proven to be big money-makers for portals and marketers. The competitive landscape has shifted dramatically in the last year because of industry consolidation, and Microsoft has been forced to adapt. Also, demand for technology to navigate the byways of corporate intranets has peaked, and companies including Microsoft want to get in on the game.

In recent months, Microsoft has hired top scientists in its quest for search algorithms that will allow it to compete directly with Google. It also is patenting new algorithms with the goal of replacing the Inktomi technology that currently powers MSN's search with Microsoft's own. The decision to swap out Inktomi technology was made after MSN rival Yahoo bought the company earlier this year.

In June, Microsoft launched a new search program called MSNBot, which trawls the Web to build an index of HTML links and documents--functions previously left to Inktomi and other partners. That's led to speculation that Microsoft plans to take on Google more directly in the search business.

Fine-tuning search
Microsoft is also developing search technology for the next version of its Windows operating system, code-named Longhorn, that could help it compete with Google. The search technology, borrowed from the company's SQL Server database, is expected to make it easier to find documents locally, on individual PCs, and across the Internet by linking to MSN's search services.

The development is believed to be the first step in a multiyear plan to build new search technology that's aimed at home and business users. The ultimate goal of the technology is to bind Microsoft's various Web sites, applications and the Windows operating system.

The corporate site's new search tool, separate from Windows and MSN Search, is built for greater relevance, speed and better navigation. A search will return categories of results such as "downloads," "product information" and "support and troubleshooting." Also, searches draw on more data from across the network. For example, a search on "Office" will yield categorized results from Office content across the entire network, not just from the Office sub-directory.

The company also uses a new scoring algorithm based on the Probabilistic Model that Microsoft researcher and City University professor Stephen Robertson developed. It is designed to improve language recognition in searches and to deliver more accurate search results at the top of the list. The ranking formula adopted and used by SharePoint Portal Server's full-text search is a direct result of Microsoft's research. The product team continues to work with Microsoft Research in Cambridge, U.K., to improve the ranking algorithm, according to the site.

"The new Microsoft.com Search is such an improvement over previous versions that it's sure to impress longtime Microsoft.com Search users," senior director George Goley said in the article. "Just as importantly, because the new Microsoft.com Search is designed from the ground up to be extended, users will be excited by the way Microsoft.com Search continues to improve over time."

 

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