Microsoft throws down gauntlet to Google

Microsoft executives on Monday said custom built algorithms and a comprehensive index of more than five billion Web pages will allow its nascent MSN Search tool to overtake market leader Google.

The world’s largest software company

plans to integrate its search engine with other MSN products, including Messenger 7.0 and its online encyclopedia Encarta, as part of an offering that will be available in Canada through its partner Bell Sympatico. Canadian MSN employees contributed to the algorithms used in search engine, which was developed over a two-year period. Testing in both English and French will ensure more relevant results for the estimated 14.6 million searchers in Canada, said MSN Canada vice-president Owen Sagness.

“This is the one area where we’re not in the lead,” he admitted during a sneak preview of the search tool, though he noted that Canada is one of the few markets where MSN comes in second. Google is usually followed closely by Yahoo! in other parts of the world.

MSN is getting in the search engine race in part based on merchant need, Sagness said. He pointed to companies like India’s ICICI Bank, which has opened up only two branches in Canada but which is trying to drive volume to those locations via its Web site. “It’s a frictionless way for them to grow their business,” he said.

Sagness said search represents an area of company-wide focus at Microsoft, which has been developing a series of products including SharePoint Portal as well as Outlook enhancements to help users gather data.

“They want to have a toolbar approach — if they’re in Outlook, or Word, they want to easily click on something and not change their interface,” he said. “We want to integrate those interfaces and make it seamlessly consistent.”

Although MSN, like Google, is developing tools that could interest enterprise workers and potentially boost productivity, IDC Canada analyst Eddie Chan said the market is still in its infancy, even among consumers.

“Microsoft can leverage the installed base of their desktop platform, but everybody is coming at it from a certain angle in terms of applications,” he said. “Whether it’s a standalone application, whether it’s integrated with Office apps, via a portal, it’s still very early to tell how that will shake out.”

Beta search projects at MSN include an “organic crawl” called Newsbot, which Sagness said would browse through personal content on a PC, structured data feeds and other sources. Tying the search engine with Encarta will allow MSN users to ask direct questions, such as

“What is the population of Halifax?” and get specific answers.

“We still think it’s incredibily open in terms of competitive advantage and consumer preference,” Sagness added. “Search engines are pretty fast, but it still takes a lot of human intervention to get the answers they want.”

While Google has already started experimenting with a desktop search feature, Microsoft last year pushed back plans to include a similar tools, WinFS, in the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn.

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