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MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF. -- For now, Microsoft is ceding the race for users to 800-pound gorilla Google. Instead, executives said, the company will focus on improving the experience for existing users.
At its Searchification event, held Wednesday at Microsoft's Silicon Valley Campus, executives briefed analysts, reporters and advertisers on changes to its core technology.
To kick things off, Brad Goldberg, who manages the search team, said Microsoft plans to get growth in search not from grabbing share from Google or runner-up Yahoo, but from getting current users to spend more time with the product.
Goldberg wasn't kidding about the transparency. The first piece of information shared by Satya Nadella, corporate vice president of the search and advertising platform group, was that a full 46 percent of users were not satisfied with Live Search and 91 percent of that group had issues with the relevance of the search results.
That dissatisfaction was spread fairly equally between the way search results were ranked (32 percent), a lack of important items in the index (28 percent) and the inability of the search algorithm to understand the searcher's intent (25 percent).
While Microsoft has been continuously improving the product, it will now release major updates every six months. Wednesday's release is anchored by a major update to the index and relevance features, according to Nadella.
"Search as content is a trend that's going to increase, and we're pushing the envelope," Nadella said. The new Live Search may respond to a query by launching one of several vertical search products: video, local, image, products and health. Each of these turns results into content portals on the fly. Going beyond lists of links and the multimedia results now included in regular Web searches from Google, Yahoo and Ask, these Live Search verticals may feature specific kinds of content, some of it generated automatically by the search application itself.
This differentiation is seen most clearly in the shopping and health verticals.
In essence, Microsoft answers a product search with a full-blown comparison site called Product Answers. A search for "digital camera," for example, returns product images for the four most popular models, along with ratings, guides, reviews and links to merchants with their prices.
Clicking on one of the most popular items produces a page that includes a Live Search-generated summary of user feedback for each relevant product feature such as ergonomics or battery life. These are the aggregate ratings garnered from all review sites the search engine has crawled.
Nadella contrasted this to Google's results for "digital camera," which only returned one product result, a comparison he made several times during the presentation.
The company believes it's second in maps usage, behind MapQuest. The plan to partner with major Web sites like FedEx or Hyatt Hotels will not only provide distribution for Live Search but also feed geographic data back into the product to improve it.
Local searches include photos of the destination, a streetscape view when available, click-to-call in some cases and aggregated information from third parties such as reviews.
Sometimes little things can mean a lot. When a user asks for driving directions from a zip code or city, rather than from an address, the application "hides" the turn-by-turn directions to get you out of the city and begins with the first highway or major road. This allows directions to be printed on one page. The "hidden" directions are still there, you just don't have to print them out. The directions also include major landmarks, the intersection before your final destination and the street after your destination, so you'll know if you've gone too far.
Health.live.com includes a special topic dashboard, inline article results, highlighted information from trusted sources such as the Mayo Clinic and "action modules." These modules are unpaid content such as a pregnancy quiz from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Privacy and security are handled differently in this vertical from the rest of the MSN network. All communication between client and server are encrypted and Microsoft erases the logs and deletes the cookies after 90 days. Moreover, the company will not target advertisements against these results. This is an important point because Microsoft claims its adCenter technology will target consumers based on their behavior anywhere on the MSN network.
In fact, all these improvements mean nothing if adsand clicks on those adsdon't follow. Like other search engines, Microsoft didn't give advance notice of the index change to search-engine marketers. Chris Hong, search engine marketing manager for Dealix, a provider of sales leads for auto dealers, attended the Searchification event. He said he understands it's important for search providers to retain secrecy about their indexes and ranking algorithms in order to thwart "black-hat" marketers who try to game the system.
Hong said improvements to adCenter, MSN's combined search and display advertising platform, have shaved off a half hour of his work day. Nevertheless, he said, MSN's advertising interface remains too complicated and is way behind Google's, where he can change a campaign with three clicks. "Every click matters," he said.
Microsoft has increased the index by a factor of four to improve coverage. But size isn't the only thing that matters. It's also increased its coverage of structured information and user-generated content and it's feeding this into specific search verticals, such as entertainment, product reviews and local business information. The result, Nadella said, is an improvement in relevance for long and obscure queries and a halving of the number of times users get less than 10 results.
Query intentthe ability for the search engine to understand whether "apple" refers to consumer electronics or nutritionhas long been a bugbear for search engines.
For example, when someone types EPRML, the results now start with a definition from Acronym Finder. A query for "Dona Pacem sung in Latin," which formerly got five related results, now starts the results with the lyrics of the song. A search for someone's name now returns results from executive profile sites.
"I'm excited about our ability to take the entire web corpus we have and extract additional information about entities like people or products, the so-called structured information," Nadella said.