Microsoft Joins the Search War

By Catherine Parker on 2004/07/08

First it was operating systems. Then came the browser wars. In 2004, it seems that Microsoft has chosen a new battle: search. This has become clear after Microsoft's recent beta release of their new search engine. The new engine is available for public use here, but has not been released as the official replacement to the existing MSN search just yet.

Before now, Microsoft did not have its own search technology - MSN results were drawn solely from Yahoo!'s engine. Now, by using their own search technology, Microsoft has placed itself squarely in competition with other major search players.

Although this new search engine is a major step for Microsoft, the burning question at the moment is whether the new engine has what it takes to compete with Google and the gang. The beta search engine is not perfect yet, with the company itself describing the new product as "raw". Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch says, "Overall, I found the search engine a good first effort, but it still gives me a `more of the same' feeling. It doesn't take search results beyond what Yahoo, Google, and Ask Jeeves do and, given their maturity, do better."

That may be true for now, but Microsoft does have an uncanny knack of suddenly swallowing up competition in whatever industry it tackles. It may be worth it for other competitors to keep a close watch on this potentially formidable search player.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's existing search engine has been given a new facelift too, resulting in a cleaner, simpler interface. What's interesting about the reworked design is that MSN has decided to drop paid listings in its results. This follows in the trend of Google, Ask Jeeves and Alta Vista, who feel that paid listings among organic results inevitably compromise the quality of those results. This means that Yahoo!, is the only remaining major competitor incorporating paid listings within their organic listings.

So where is Microsoft headed in future? Possible clues might be in the news that they have recently bought Lookout, a Silicon Valley startup that made a name for itself with software that quickly searches files within Microsoft's Outlook e-mail system. The move suggests that Microsoft is moving to make search seamless from the web to within its desktop tools such as Outlook. Microsoft already has a desktop search within Windows Explorer, but in the future we may see this search feature becoming more advanced.

The Seattle Times reported a couple of weeks ago that a former AltaVista employee was arrested for allegedly hacking some of AltaVista's source code. The employee now works for MSN on search - though the alleged theft happened before that employment. Does this mean Microsoft is resorting to stealing ideas from competitors? That's not a foreign concept for Microsoft: the use of graphic desktop icons, for example, was first seen on Apple Macs and NOT on Microsoft PCs. While it's foolish to jump to conclusions, Microsoft may not be as formidable as they initially seemed.