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Friday, July 09, 2004

Microsoft on the Trail of Google via NYTimes

For years, Microsoft's own Web search page, MSN Search, has finished a distant third place in the search-engine popularity wars (behind Google and Yahoo). The company's new plan is apparently to remake MSN Search in Google's image.The Googlification of MSN will occur in two phases. The first, a cosmetic makeover, is now complete and ready for your inspection at www.search.msn.com. The new look consists of an empty white screen that loads blissfully quickly, even over dial-up connections, and an empty, neatly centered text box where you're supposed to type in what you're looking for. The search page is ad-free and, except for the MSN logo, even devoid of graphics. (On July 4, however, MSN added a waving-flag graphic, an imitation of the way Google's witty artists dress up its own logo on holidays.) In short, MSN Search couldn't look more like Google if you photocopied it.For many searches, the results are pretty much the same at Google, Yahoo and MSN Search, which is to say outstanding. Search for "convert yen to dollars," "divorce statistics for Brazil," "5-string banjo tuning" or "oh susannah sheet music," and no matter which of these services you use, the very first search result is a direct link to the information you want. (So often is the first listing what you want, in fact, that you begin to see the appeal of the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button on Google's home page. If you click on this instead of the regularly scheduled Search button, you go straight to the Web page that Google considers most likely to have your answer, bypassing the results list entirely.)But do enough searches, spend enough months, and Google gradually re-earns its reputation for superior accuracy. Search for "history of Phillips screwdriver," for example, and you'll find the answer hiding behind the very first result on Google and Yahoo-but not until the fourth listing in MSN Search's results. (Caveat searchor: Search-engine companies are constantly tinkering with their search formulas, so your results may not match the ones described here.) Microsoft has done a beautiful job de-gunking its home page and removing paid ads from your search results. Will its new search technology attain anything even close to Google's "relevancy?" It's too soon to tell. But if it's successful, Microsoft will have demonstrated its brilliancy, boosted its own importancy and taken another irreversible step toward world dominancy.
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