MSN Search review

Over the past few years – combined with contextual advertising – searching has became the Web’s biggest money-spinner. Given the enormous quantities of cash now at stake, it’s no surprise that Microsoft wants to take a piece of the action from market leaders Google and Yahoo!. With the launch of MSN Search, it’s now a three-way heavyweight fight for the attention of the world’s searchers.

MSN Search review

Today’s search engine landing pages are clean to the point of sameness, almost universally consisting of a keyword entry box plus a list of search indices such as Web, Images and News. With Yahoo! and Google, much of the power is hidden behind Advanced Search features or through modifiers, such as ‘domain:co.uk dell’, to restrict results for the search term ‘dell’ to .co.uk domains. But, while potentially powerful, these features can be daunting obstacles to the casual searcher.

In an attempt to make this more accessible, Microsoft’s SearchBuilder tool uses graphic-equaliser-style bars to allow the user to adjust the relative weight by popularity, keyword matching or date. It doesn’t have the resolution that the fancy graphics may imply, but it’s handy to be able to sort by more than simply date order.

MSN Search also includes easy access to dictionaries, movies and music databases; not surprisingly, these feed off MSN’s own content. However, Microsoft’s broad existing product base is one of the principal advantages that the software giant can bring to the market – its highly rated Encarta online encyclopaedia, for example. In fact, one of MSN Search’s killer features could be that, if you click on the Encarta link at the top of the MSN Search home page, you receive a two-hour pass to Encarta Online, allowing you to use its vast content as part of your research.

When choosing the order in which to present results, search engines will add particular weight to keywords found in things like the page title or Meta tags. Priority may also be given to keyword density – the number of times a keyword or phrase turns up on a page.

A good illustration of the different approaches taken by Google, Yahoo! and MSN is searching for ‘villas in France’. Although page popularity and other factors affect the ranking, both the Yahoo! and Google results give greater prominence if the phrase is within the page title.

MSN puts a greater weight on keywords within the body of the page. This approach can lead to a certain randomness, where the phrase appears among otherwise unrelated subject matter. It’s a strategy that works when you look beyond the title tag, though. Look up ‘iPAQ hx2400’ in Yahoo!, and you’ll get a page with iPAQ hx2400 in the title, but it’s only a list of accessories. MSN’s top result, on the other hand, was an hp.com page titled ‘Handheld PCs at a glance’. The same HP site appeared only fifth in the Google listings, behind shopping-comparison sites with the device name in the title.

The keyphrase strategy also works well with the “[search term] is” approach. Typing in “IA-64 is” into Yahoo!, the engine ignores the hyphen and discounts the ‘is’ as a common word, returning linuxia64.org as the first result. Google and MSN fare much better, returning similar pages containing the phrase in the body text. Google also gets an extra point for including the whatis.com definition in the top three results.

Lastly, we tried the engines’ ability to find local suppliers, using the perennial ‘plumber’ and ‘Clapham’ as an example. Google’s listed results were poor, providing titles with ‘Clapham’ and ‘Plumber’ in the title or the text (some of whom were merely surnames), but no actual plumbers in Clapham. On the positive side, the Google adwords provided an excellent source of local plumbers.

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