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Web Watch by Leslie Walker

Microsoft's Search Falls Far Short of Google's

By Leslie Walker
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page F07

Google engineers must have breathed a sigh of relief Thursday when rival Microsoft Corp. rolled out a new search engine that proved glitchy and failed to wow reviewers.

The mighty software maker quickly solved the technical problems that briefly served up "temporarily unavailable" messages instead of search results. It's unclear, however, how the company will address the missing "wow" factor.

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Our tests of the new MSN Search's trial version (beta.search.msn.com) suggest that it's not as accurate as Google. While both sites do fine on many queries, our comparison of roughly two dozen search phrases gave the edge to Google at least two out of three times.

In response to a search on "history of photography," for example, Google yielded as its top result a site deep with resources about photographic history. MSN's top find was the personal site of a "natural history photographer." A more specific query, "death toll at Gettysburg," brought up the total body count of that Civil War battle in the second result on Google, an excerpt of a Forbes article, while none of MSN's top results spotlighted this figure. Typing in "wife of John Adams" at Google brought up Abigail Adams's official biography on the White House Web site as the first result; MSN showed her husband's official biography from the same site as its No. 1 find.

MSN's new search service has some useful features, particularly a "near me" button that finds information, people or places in your neck of the woods. It works by reading the Internet protocol address of your Web browser or any additional data, such as Zip codes, that you may enter in your personal settings. It also analyzes text on all the Web pages it crawls and indexes geographic data, including city and regional names.

But this feature can return flawed results, especially since computers can't understand regional names as easily as people. When we typed "book store" and clicked "near me," for example, it brought up two pages about a store in Seattle.

Other additions to MSN include the ability to look up facts in Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia, hear song samples from the MSN Music site, filter out sexually explicit material and find images -- it indexes about 400 million Web photos. A built-in calculator provides answers to math equations.

While the home page for MSN's new search is simple and easy to use, its "Search Builder" may confuse people. Clicking on this button displays an annoying pop-down box, stuffed with too many ways to revise your query. The first choice, "search terms," fails to spell out how it would refine your existing search. Clicking on a "learn more" link only brought up a baffling, verbose page of instructions.

The five other Search Builder options are a tad simpler. They let you limit a search to particular countries, to particular Web sites and to certain categories of Web addresses. You can also control variables such as whether you want Web sites that are static or change frequently, and whether you want Web sites considered popular or unpopular.

For now, Microsoft is running its fledgling Web search engine at a stand-alone test site, while MSN's main search page (search.msn.com) still shows results licensed from Yahoo. MSN search manager Justin Osmer said Microsoft won't replace Yahoo's results with its own until it feels the technology is ready for use by the general public, likely next year. Moreover, MSN will release additional search software next month, including a new program to locate files on a user's own computer.

Asked if he thought the new service to be as good as Google, Osmer said, "It is a start for us. We know we have got a long way to go."

E-mail Leslie Walker at walkerl@washpost.com.

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