MSN Eyes Google's Search Crown

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While professing admiration for Google, MSN vice president Yusuf Mehdi said last week that he saw ample opportunity to battle the upstart search king.

Speaking at a Goldman Sachs investment conference, Mehdi lavished praise on Google for rethinking Internet search and giving users a simple, fast interface while maintaining a nimble and innovative corporate culture.

"They've got that great focus on the customer experience, which I admire and I think respect," he said.

Yet Mehdi said Google would face pressure, from shareholders and internally, as it expands beyond Web search into e-mail, social networking and other areas.

"I think as you lose your core competency, things get much harder," he said.

Mehdi detailed how Microsoft plans to use its core competencies in software and the computer operating system to stitch together an all-in-one engine that lets users search the Web, their computer and e-mail. The search system is to be included in the release of Microsoft's new operating system in 2006.

"Why does it take so much time to search the PC when you can index the whole Web and find it in milliseconds?" he said, in an apparent criticism of Microsoft's own computer search capabilities in contrast to Google's Web search.

Mehdi said MSN had made progress in catching up with rivals Google and Yahoo in the search market. The site handles 2 billion queries a day, he said, and the MSN Toolbar was downloaded 10 million times since its introduction in January.

MSN, which currently uses Yahoo's search technology, is developing its own Web search technology, which it plans to implement later this year. It is working on smaller search advances, such as a natural-language search tool and specialty search engines for news sites and Web logs.

MSN still trails Google and Yahoo badly in share of the search market. According to comScore Networks figures from March, MSN has 16 percent of the search market compared with 36 percent for Google and 30 percent for Yahoo.

Though Google remains the leader, competitors can take heart from apparent consumer willingness to switch search engines. A study released last week by market researcher Vividence showed that Web users found the correct answer to sample searches nearly as often at rival search engines compared with Google. Mehdi said Microsoft's own data showed only half of searches are adequately answered.

"We see a phenomenal opportunity to go forward," he said. "When [searchers] do get an answer, they get a list of Web links, not necessarily the data they want."

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