Last week, Microsoft unveiled its new MSN Search site, which it says was rebuilt from the bits up to compete with Google and Yahoo, the two leaders so far in the Web-search business.
Like its rivals, MSN Search (search.msn.com) offers queries in a variety of categories -- including images, news and local retailers. A downloadable MSN Search toolbar -- a test release for the Windows version of Internet Explorer -- also allows you to look for files on your computer's hard drive.
A nifty "search builder" tool offers users a sliding-bar control to focus searches by such criteria as the last time a site posted new content and how many people visit it.
MSN Search also now offers access to the full version of Microsoft's Encarta online encyclopedia, which until now was restricted to paying subscribers. Technically, you can browse it for only two hours at a time, but that countdown resets with every new search.
If you're in need of a quick answer, you can try asking MSN Search a question, although the results are definitely scattershot. Want to know who won the Best Actor Academy Award in 1977? You'll get a quick response. Don't know who won the Super Bowl in 2002? Neither does MSN -- you'll have to dig through the search results.
MSN's search engine certainly outstrips those of Yahoo and Google in one aspect: its commercial density. Google includes a list of text-only ads on the side of results pages, but MSN includes them at the top, side and bottom of every page. For example, a search for sites about Thomas Jefferson yielded the ad byproduct of links to Netflix, Amazon.com and a company that sells Jefferson busts.
MSN Search may not get anybody to defect from Google or Yahoo. But at least Microsoft's search engine -- previously a clunky Yahoo-driven relic -- will no longer actively drive people away. According to Forrester Research, 20 percent of people who have MSN as their home page use Google as their primary search engine -- and if only for convenience's sake, some of them might switch back.
Google's Geographic Guidance
Speaking of Google, it has added another service to its Web empire, Google Maps. Although this free site is still in testing, the direction seems clear -- Google wants to make it the go-to site for online mapping.
Google's maps are exceptionally clean and easy to read. Major thoroughfares are highlighted in yellow, roads are clearly labeled, and push-pins and captions pointing to landmarks are set off from their surroundings by nifty 3-D shadow effects. Best of all, the maps are scrollable -- simply click and drag, and you can move across a map instantly instead of waiting for the whole page to redraw. That alone should be a joy for anyone who has tried to follow a road for an extended stretch on MapQuest. (These effects work in most current browsers but not Opera or Apple's Safari.)
Google also allows you to search for local businesses with relative ease. Enter "Ethiopian" and "Washington, DC," and Adams Morgan lights up with markers, including links to directions and businesses' Web sites, if available. And speaking of directions, these are clear and easy to read without (so far) the ads of Yahoo and MapQuest.
Listing Your To-Do List
Everyone has goals. Not everyone shares them with the world -- but maybe they should. That's the idea behind 43 Things, a site that invites you to list up to 43 things you want to do with your life, then post comments on your progress or advice for fellow goal-seekers.
You, of course, may not be into that sort of full disclosure -- but it's still fun to browse the 30,000-plus things that more than 7,000 users hope to accomplish. Apparently, many of them want to stop procrastinating (hint: quit wasting so much time on the Web), take more pictures and visit Japan.
Advertising on the site is kept to a minimum. So what keeps it afloat? A Salon.com article last week reported that 43 Things is funded by Amazon.com, which would have plenty of reasons to want to know people's hopes and dreams.
Leslie Walker is away. She will resume writing Web Watch when she returns.