First published in Online Currents – 20(5) June 2005
This is the third article in a series investigating Web search engines, following others about Google (Online Currents October 2004, pp.13-16) and Yahoo! (Online Currents March 2005, pp. 21-24).
MSN launched its new search engine on 2 February 2005. In addition to the search function, the home page (http://www.msn.com ) provides links to news, reference sources, shopping, entertainment and technology, and services such as Hotmail and Messenger. The Australian site, ninemsn, is discussed later.
Starting at the top of the screen there are options to toggle between simple white and classic blue screen colours, and a link Make MSN my home page.
Next, there are six categories of search with a search box and search button. There is no option on the home page to select advanced search you have to do a search first, and are then provided with more options (see below). The search options, without the rest of the MSN portal, are also available at http://search.msn.com .
The search tabs are Web, news, images, music, desktop (beta), and Encarta. On the results/advanced search page, music is no longer listed but the other five remain as options for new searches. When you select one of the tabs on the home page, it is highlighted in green and an arrow points from it to the search box. This is a nice feature, as it indicates that the tab options are related to what you type in the search box. When you select a tab on the results/advanced search page, it changes the wording of the search button from Search to the type of search (e.g. News). This is a useful reminder if you have selected one of the options I dont know why it is implemented here but not on the search home page.
MSN lists sponsored sites (similar to Googles sponsored links) at the right hand side of general search results, and sometimes also at the top and bottom.
MSN indexes over 5 billion pages, – not quite as much as Googles 8 billion, but still five times as many as before the switch to in-house indexing (http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1759,1723645,00.asp ).
I decided to test search using examples from an Online Comment article (Online Currents December 2004 p. 2). A search for banofee pie (in inverted commas) retrieved 241 hits in MSN (215 in February) and 331 in Google (198 hits were reported for Google in the Online Comment). Both search engines suggested the alternative spelling banoffee pie which resulted in 4,710 hits in Google and 4,001 in MSN. There is a message at the bottom of the MSN screen asking: Didnt get the results you expected? Help us improve. This message leads to a feedback page, suggesting that they will improve retrieval when notified of problems.
A search for wind farms selecting pages from Australia in Google retrieved 97,600 hits, while a search for wind farms loc:AU in MSN retrieved 24,493 hits. A search on ninemsn for wind farms limited by clicking the button Only from Australia gives a similar, though not identical, result. The MSN hits came from a broad range of sites. The top ten included news, educational, government, commercial and association sites, while all of the top ten Google hits were from commercial or news sites. All searches retrieved relevant information.
Search relevance on MSN is better than when I first tested it with the phrase website indexing, but improvement is still needed. The fourth hit (http://www.alphawebsmarts.com ) for this search phrase was retrieved because text at the bottom of the page says website indexing code � Alpha Web Smarts. The same phrase was responsible for the retrieval of seven of the top 10 hits for this search in ninemsn.
News searches retrieve hits from a wide range of sources, including the Los Angeles Times, BBC and Electronic Engineering Times Asia. The News results page presents a number of subject categories. These are: popular news, world, US, business, sports, entertainment, science & health, and technology. Clicking on any of these brings up a page of news headings and summaries in the selected area.
I tried several image searches using MSN and Google. I usually got a reasonable selection from both, although there were more hits with Google. In a search for Acacia one of the first hits from MSN is a rather nice looking pair of acacia yellow moon boots! (I dont mind a bit of serendipity in my search results). With MSN you can view all hits, or restrict results by size (Large, Medium, Small) or choose Color or Black & White; with Google you can just restrict by size.
When I tested MSN in February, Music search didnt work for me as it should, but returned general search results with the MSN options on the page listed in Spanish. When I clicked the English option, the music search worked, returning lists of songs for sale. This has now been fixed, although the results are a bit of a disappointment as they seem to only come from the MSN Music download database, where items are available for purchase. Other options on this page are Radio, Movies and TV. The music pages are also awkward to get out of, as they dont have a link back to the MSN home page.
Desktop allows you to download the MSN Toolbar Suite Beta to search your desktop.
Clicking on Encarta allows you to search the encyclopedia for two hours. Performing another search gives you another two hours, so access is, in practice, unlimited. The first hit is a general definition or quick fact, if available, with links to more detailed information, related media and articles, and Encarta Answers, where you can write natural language questions. Find out more at http://search.msn.com/docs/help.aspx?t=SEARCH_CONC_EncartaFreePass.htm .
Speed (i.e. Currency) of Indexing
There has been some (inconclusive) discussion in blogs about whether MSN indexes and updates content quicker than Google and Yahoo! My experience suggests that it does. We changed the URL of our Web site in September 2004. The new site showed up in the top ten MSN hits for a search on website indexing in February 2005, while in Google it still ranked much lower, although the old site was in the top ten. See discussions of other experiments on the topic athttp://www.cre8asiteforums.com/viewtopic.php?t=21366 andhttp://www.seroundtable.com/archives/001473.html .
Advanced Search Options
Advanced search options become available after you have done a Web search (even a blank search). They are accessed by clicking +Search Builder and Settings. If you start with a search for News, Images or Encarta, the results page offers you the Settings option but not +Search Builder. This is a shame, as there are times when these searches could also benefit from Boolean approaches.
At this screen, you are also presented with a button saying Near Me; which presumably finds local sites. (When I tried it it said there were no hits for plumber I think this is because it is not possible to set Australian locations).
The Search Builder opens a window that takes up a bit less than a third of the screen. This means you can see most of the search results as you build your advanced search. You can also cut and paste from the search results into the Search Builder. This could be useful for adding terms from hits or limiting searches to a site that has been retrieved.
The Search Builder works well once you learn that you have to click on an option on the left to be offered relevant choices on the right (this was not apparent to me initially as some options are shown on the right by default). As you select options, they are added to the search box to gradually build a complex search.
The options are:
- search terms (all of these terms, any of these terms, this exact phrase, none of these terms each of these can be applied to different parts of the search. For instance, you can enter a few words set to this exact phrase and then another two saying any of these terms)
- site/domain (limit a search to one or more sites, or exclude one or more sites)
- links to (find sites that link to the URL you enter)
- country/region (limit search to Web pages from 22 countries or regions selected from a dropdown list)
- language (limit search to Web pages written in one of 12 languages selected from a dropdown list. All of the languages are European except Japanese)
- results ranking (three bars representing the degrees of recency of updating, popularity, and exactness of match).
All of these provide a link to information on using the options.
The settings link opens a window that looks similar to the Google Advanced search screen and takes over the whole screen. Here you can set:
- display language
- results display (number of hits per page; grouping hits from the same site; presenting results in a new browser window)
- safe search (filtering explicit images and/or text. Also links to information on staying safe online athttp://www.msn.staysafeonline.com )
- location (entering your current location i.e. city, state and zipcode, can help them provide local information where appropriate) (see below)
- search language (can be limited to the same languages as in the Search Builder).
Once selected, these settings can be saved as the default for your system.
It seems as if local search only works for the United States, but this is not made clear. The Location section of the Settings page asks for zipcode (not postcode) and a search in the city guides (http://local.msn.com ) for Australian capital cities doesnt work (a search for Perth, for instance, suggests Perth Amboy, NJ and Perth, ND).
Expert Search Tips
Expert search tips (http://search.msn.com/docs/help.aspx?t=SEARCH_CONC_ExpertSearchTips.htm ) provide guidance on how to limit or broaden searches using:
- Words in inverted commas to search for exact phrases
- Minus signs or NOT to find sites that dont contain a word
- | (Shift) to find sites that contain both words.
The examples in their search tips, shown below, do not make this clear.
Type of search: Find information that is known by different names
Example: World Cup soccer|football
Results: Sites that contain both terms.
Surely if football and soccer are used as synonyms for the same sport you would want to use a Boolean OR to find sites with either term, not the | symbol which represents Boolean AND? Also, if a search for football is too broad, then limiting to soccer alone should be enough, without requiring both terms to be present.
Type of search: Find information about different things related to one search term
Example: Hotel OR Inn London England
Results: Sites for both inns and hotels in London, England
Surely this type of search is one in which you want to find information about similar things, which can be referred to by two different search terms, not different things related to one search term. It is good that MSN provides expert search, but the specific examples are not all that helpful.
Alternative Search Screen
A page with a simple search form is available athttp://auto.search.msn.com . It is similar to the Google home page, and has a dropdown list allowing you to search Web, News, Dictionary, Encyclopedia, Stock Quotes, Movies and Shopping. There are links to Advanced Search and Preferences (e.g. you can choose to have spelling suggestions). This appears to be the old (pre-February 2005) search screen, although this is not explicitly stated on the page. It is also likely that it is not being updated; a search for moon shadow retrieved about 516,000 hits in the old search and about 3,600,000 in the new search.
There is a small note saying: MSN Search is improved! Check it out. This links to a tour of the new MSN Search (http://www.imagine-msn.com/search/tour/moreprecise.aspx ). It is not clear whether this old page will be removed when most people have moved to the new MSN Search, or whether it is being kept for historical reference.
As well as being an old search layout, this search page uses the Inktomi search engine. Read a review of the old MSN Search by Greg Notess athttp://www.searchengineshowdown.com/features/msn/inkmsn.shtml.
Advanced Search Page
The MSN Advanced search page (http://auto.search.msn.com/advanced.aspx ) offers some of the options from Search Builder and Settings and others that are not used in the new search site. It would be useful if the extra features from this page were included in the more prominent Search Builder and Settings. Extra features include:
- optional stemming (so a search for movie will find movies)
- results display (ability to sort by date, depth or title)
- restricting results by document directory depth
- restricting results by file types (HTML, PDF/Acrobat, MS-Word, MS-Powerpoint, MS-Excel) (Greg Notess says that Search Builder offers file type limit options for these five file types (seehttp://www.searchengineshowdown.com/features/msn/index.shtml); however, I do not see them in Search Builder, and they are not discussed on the relevant Help page (http://search.msn.com/docs/help.aspx?t=SEARCH_REF_HowToUseAllAdvSrchOptions.htm )
- restricting results by page content (pages with links to the following extensions e.g. images, MP3 audio, Shockwave and PDF, with a box to enter other extensions e.g. .doc).
Stemming was a strong feature of the Inktomi search engine, so may have been lost in the move to a new search engine.
This page also has links to Submit a Web site to be listed in the Web directory and Add MSN Search to Your Site, as well as options to search MSNs international sites, including Australia, Japan and US (Spanish).
Underneath the Search box and to the right are links for the two major MSN services Hotmail and Messenger – as well as the option to customise the interface at My MSN. Other services, including Hotmail Plus and Internet hosting deals, are listed at the bottom of the page.
Hotmail (http://login.passport.net/uilogin.srf?id=2 ) is a free e-mail service, while Messenger is a free chat system (http://www.imagine-msn.com/messenger/default.aspx?locale=en-US ), crucial for some teenagers social lives and homework completion!
MSN Tools and Information
The left-hand navigation links to a number of tools or information sources. Lots of these eventually lead to paid services, although this is not always clear when you start following a lead. They are listed under the headings:
- News & Sports (including MSNBC News, but not the same page you get through doing a search using the News tab then selecting Read the news; Slate magazine; Fox Sports; and Weather. Weather works for Sydney, but they do not have a local news provider for Suva, Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur)
- Look it Up (U.S. city guides, Encarta, Maps & Directions (works for Australian locations), U.S. and Canada White Pages (finds phone numbers and links to paid searches for background checks, including criminal records) and U.S. Yellow Pages, with a link to Canadian content)
- Living & Finances (Careers, Credit Report, Dating & Personals, Health & Fitness, House & Home, Money, Travel)
- Entertainment (Games, Horoscopes, Movies, Music, TV)
- Shop (Air Tickets, Auctions (eBay and uBid), Autos, Auto Show 2005, Buy a House, Dell Home Deals (i.e. computer sales), Overstock.com, Rent an Apartment, and Shopping)
- Technology (Downloads, Microsoft.com, Tech & Gadgets, Windows Update)
- People (Greeting Cards, Groups & Chat including Messenger and Dating & Personals, Kids, Latino, Women, and Family (includes fast facts on topics such as baby bathing, and tools such as party planner and product recall)).
Final links in the left-hand navigation are to MSN Directory (a site-map style listing of content on the MSN Web site, not a directory of Web content as in the Yahoo! and Google directories), MSN Worldwide, where you can select a country or region, and the chance to switch to the broadband option.
The Australian version of MSN is ninemsn (http://ninemsn.com.au ) the Web site uses all lower case letters. It was formed in 1997 as a joint venture between the Microsoft Corporation and Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL). It can, therefore, provide PBL content from Nine Network television programs and Australian Consolidated Press magazines, as well as MSN services (http://mediacentre.ninemsn.com.au/mediacentre/about.aspx ).
The advantage of using the local site is that it is possible to click a button to limit a search to sites within Australia; some news and other content has been selected for the area; and there are some additional content types, including television programs. However, I couldnt find any local search options in the Settings.
Ninemsn offers a search box labelled NEW Web search but doesnt include the tabbed options that MSN has. Once you do a search you can select Web, News, Images and Encarta, and there is a checkbox for limiting search to Australian sites. The +Search Builder and Settings options are also available.
Overall, MSN search provides quick relevant results, and Search Builder is a good attempt to make advanced search more accessible. For those who are willing to experiment, it provides a way of doing complex searches relatively simply. It is a shame that some useful options from the old search engine, such as the ability to choose stemming and to limit searches to various file types, are no longer available through Search Builder. It would also be a good idea if the old search page was clearly labelled as such.
The Settings page in MSN is similar to that found with other search engines, and complements the options available in Search Builder. The ability to save the options means you can create default settings for your own computer. There is no obvious Save option on the comparable Google page.
Ninemsns quick positive response to my request for permission to print a screenshot was appreciated it is nice to find an accessible human contact point for a major search engine!.