We’ve talked before about MSN continuing to innovate in its search offering as it tries to gain share against Google and Yahoo!, but MSN has been especially busy the last few weeks. MSN Search has introduced a new method of relevance ranking, upgraded its local search offering, and introduced a new set of search operators that can be used by search marketers.
Some are saying the new MSN results are incredible. MSN claims improved relevance which it says is due to its use of neural networks. Neural networks are a well-understood way that computers can use a large number of factors to make decisions, while gradually improving decision making by learning (so feedback on the decisions can change the imprortance of the factors). Search relevance ranking has always used hundreds of factors (a Microsoft patent claims 569 factors in their algorithm) and has long used feedback (such as clicks on search results) to rerank the results for the next search. So, some are saying that publicizing “neural networks” is more about marketing than technology. Each of the search engines claims the best relevancy, so search marketers need not be so concerned about who claims what. Pay attention to the search engine popularity numbers—if one of the engines truly satisfies searchers more, then the market will shift and marketers should take notice.
MSN’s local search entry looks a lot like its competition from Google and Yahoo!, as it searches yellow page listings and displays telephone numbers and addresses, as well as maps and directions. It has added aerial photographs, but I am not sure how useful they are.
Most folks are focused on the new relevance ranking and local search, but MSN Search has released documentation on new operators as well. For those of you unaware, most search engines have special commands that you can type to request different kinds of results. For example, you can use the “site:” operator in most search engines to see how many pages from a certain domain are included in the search index, as in “site:www.ibm.com” to see how many pages from IBM’s Web site are indexed.
MSN has recently added a set of new operators that include some new twists, such as the “contains:” operator that shows pages that contain certain types of files. You can read about the complete list of MSN Search operators along with some tips on how to use multiple operators together. Danny Sullivan has noted that he has had mixed results on how well they have worked, which is unfortunately true in general with search operators—they tend to be poorly documented and not well-supported. But when they work, they can help you do things you can’t do any other way. For example, MSN Search is promising an operator that lets you search for pages by the keywords contained within anchor text that links to them.
MSN Search is already a good search engine, and has 15% of the market of all searches. Microsoft is showing its characteristic determination to overtake competitors and time will see if it has its usual success.