Microsoft stole Gervais’s searches. Fact.

Microsoft says it’s making massive improvements to the relevancy of search results on its Windows Live service, after admitting it’s been hijacking searches for one of Britain’s top comedians.

Microsoft stole Gervais's searches. Fact.

The company says it’s making strenuous efforts to understand the intent of people’s searches, especially when entering “stop words” such as “the” into the search box.

Microsoft admits that, in the past, it has benefited from its own search engine’s inadequacies. “Most people going to the web searching for ‘the office’ have been looking for the television show,” says Cynthia Crossley, director of Windows Live Search in the UK. “But historically we haven’t dealt well with stop words, and so Microsoft Office was one of the top responses, which we may have liked, but it wasn’t the intent.”

Crossley claims the search engine is introducing other new tricks to help correct errant spelling. She cites the example of someone typing in “cratoon network” rather than “Cartoon Network.”

“Historically you’d get some not very good results back but you’d get the question ‘did you mean the Cartoon Network?’. Based on the feedback we’ve gotten it’s clear that consumers want to click less, rather than more. Now we’ll assume you were looking for the Cartoon Network, but we’ll still ask the question.”

Index envy

Crossley claims that Windows Live Search has quadrupled the size of its index, which will help deliver more relevant results. However, she refuses to be drawn on how that measures up to Google’s index, claiming only that it’s “very, very comparable.”

“There are many ways in which search engines test their relevance,” she says. “We’re seeing parity with Google in terms of relevance.”

But will parity be good enough to tempt users to switch from Google to Windows Live? Crossley insists Microsoft isn’t driven by besting Google. “What you have to look at over the course of using a search engine is are you getting the right results?” she claims. “If we can meet the needs of the consumer, that’s the acid test.”

And she claims that all search engines still have plenty of room for improvement. “40% of all queries go unanswered [across all search engines]. 50% of queries need some refinement. We’re a long way from reaching the perfect search engine.”

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