Finding Something In MSN Search

Microsoft has recently unveiled a revamped MSN Search that is clearly targeted at unseating the industry leading Google search engine. MSN Search is a pleasant interface that is very capable of returning comparable results, but is it a Google-killer?

There is some history to web oriented search technology that is worth reviewing at this point.

Before Google the search engine of choice was AltaVista. To some extent, this was a showcase for Digital to demonstrate the capability of the DEC Alpha platform, but ultimately they were able to finance enough hard drive storage to index millions of pages. Since WebCrawler was without money, they simply couldn’t compete and AltaVista became the engine of choice.

So AltaVista improved on WebCrawler by indexing enough sites to make the search interesting, and Google improved on this again by providing enough relevancy in the results. So one might wonder, what improvement is MSN Search trying to implement? Maybe there are no problems left to solve and web search engines are without room for improvement. The modern full-text indexing engine is adept at finding relevant results, and both of these companies have enough money to buy the computing resources they might need to index the entire web.

Needless to say, there are similar arguments that can be made for other computing applications. For example, after the advent of the modern wordprocessor there has since been very little motivation for consumers to pursue upgrades. In the beginning, document processors like WordStar provided ASCII storage with inline commands for formatting your document. This made the documents very difficult to read, and the user was further confounded by the complex series of keystrokes that had to be learned. The WordPerfect product was an incremental improvement to this, all of the formatting characters could be hidden from the user and the function keys were used to provide access to the necessary functions.

So has Microsoft provided an incremental improvement with the new MSN Search? Not really, they are attempting to compete with Google with similar functionality. The search results produced by both sites is quite good, they are both indexing the majority of the visible web and are nearly equal in the relevancy of the results.

This kind of scenario is not an incremental improvement, and as such this is not the area where companies will generally find consumer traction. It seems more likely that this is the first assault of the Microsoft technology, and this is generally when they embrace the competition. The second prong of this attack will be when Microsoft extends the technology and does something a little bit better.