Microsoft Finally Running in Search Race

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Microsoft Corp. formally released its search engine yesterday as it goes after giant Google Inc. in the battle for online dominance and ad dollars.


The launch of MSN Search, in development for more than two years, comes just days after founder Bill Gates acknowledged that Microsoft was "stupid" for not recognizing the importance of search engines sooner.


A beta version of the Redmond, WA, company's search tool was released in November. It will be on MSN's redesigned home page and will be available in 25 markets and 10 languages. MSN Search now has a more prominent position on the home page, and the layout is simplified. Microsoft also said it eliminated some text ads and claimed that the site loads 50 percent faster.


The search function permanently replaces Inktomi search technology from rival Yahoo that Microsoft was using. Still, the Yahoo technology will be used for the sponsored listings appearing alongside the main search results.


According to market researcher comScore Networks, Microsoft has a long way to go to topple Google. Google drew 34.7 percent of U.S. search users in December while Yahoo came in second with 31.9 percent. MSN was a distant third with 16.3 percent, followed by Time Warner, which includes America Online, with 9.4 percent.


Advertisers spent nearly $3.9 billion placing targeted ads beside search engine results last year, according to research firm eMarketer. Revenue is expected to grow 22.5 percent this year.


Microsoft plans television commercials, print ads, online advertising and grassroots promotions to get the word out about its new search tool. In some ads, MSN Search comes to life with an animated search bar that changes shape to match query terms. For example, viewers will see palm trees sprout in response to the phrase, "What is the average temperature in Honolulu?" The company did not disclose the ad campaign's cost.


Microsoft's new search engine will gather results from a database index of 5 billion Web documents and pages. Google draws from 8 billion pages.


Like other engines, MSN Search includes tabs to search the Web and images. The company also took suggestions from beta users and modified some functions, including answers to questions using the company's Encarta encyclopedia, said Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president of the MSN Information Services and merchant platform division at Microsoft. Answers are provided in categories such as geographical locations, historical and popular figures, definitions, facts, calculations and solutions to equations.


A new capability being introduced is RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, feeds that let users track search results through an incoming data feed on their computers.


The search function also includes instant answers from MSN Music so consumers can type the name of an artist, song or album and receive links to music files and other content from MSN Music. The function also lets consumers hear a sample or buy and download the song. That service launched in September.


In addition, a new desktop category tab allows users with MSN Toolbar Suite installed to search through their e-mail, computer documents and media files.


In an interview with Charlie Rose at last month's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Gates discussed search. According to wire reports, he called existing search technology "a joke" compared with what will be possible in two or three years. Asked whether Microsoft missed the boat, he noted that Microsoft was relying on Yahoo for its search technology.


"It's certainly our fault that we didn't recognize that that reliance was not going to get us a state of the art experience," Gates said. "We were stupid as hell."


But he said the search industry was still in its infancy, and he vowed to catch up.


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