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Sunday, September 26, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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User Friendly

Microsoft Is On A Quest To Make Its Msn Search Engine Smarter

Seattle Times Columnist

Although there are dozens of ways to search the Web, finding what you want still involves too much click-or-miss.

In a dream world, you should be able to type in a few words and engage in a dialogue with your computer, along the lines of the following:

You: "Find me stuff about Hurricane Floyd."

Computer: "I've got Pink Floyd, too, and Floyd County."

You: "Just Hurricane Floyd."

Computer: "There's lots of general stuff. What do you want to know in particular?"

You: "Where did it hit hardest?"

Computer: "You mean, the worst flooding? Or the most wind damage?"

And so on. The search site, in other words, would have some built-in intelligence enabling you to get the information you really seek. The process would involve a lot more than just typing in a couple of key words, which is the way most people search the Web.

Microsoft has been working to add "IntelliSense," the functionality that put smarts in Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer, to its MSN Search facility. The latest version of MSN Search, posted Thursday as Microsoft unveiled a number of MSN enhancements, adds a passel of features but shows that the search for a truly effective search intelligence is going to be a long haul.

The goal of the new MSN Search feature is to sort of read your mind. If you type "horascope" it will know you mean "horoscope." If you type "cars" it will know you also mean "autos."

Looking at a test version of the upgrade over the past couple of weeks, I found MSN Search to be on the right track, but in the baby-step phase. MSN has added some nice user-interface improvements and enhanced Search's functionality. But it often falls short of its ambitions and of what other search sites can do.

Example: I set out to order tickets to Cirque du Soleil's "O" performance in Las Vegas. When I misspelled it as "de," MSN returned sites with not only that incorrect spelling but "soleil" also misspelled ("soliel"). The problem was, it did not return the best Cirque sites. Only when I submitted the correct spelling did I get a representative hit list.

Doing the same search on Yahoo! netted not only the correctly spelled sites the first time around, but also better hits than MSN. The official Cirque site was listed, as well as the "O" home page.

A similar test with "encephalitus" and "vacination" (both misspelled) showed the same shortcomings. Yahoo! addresses this issue by suggesting alternative spellings. MSN has the right idea but apparently needs to build its database of misspellings and alternate spellings.

MSN Search's new opening page is a considerable improvement over its rudimentary predecessor. The look is cleaner and the organization sharper.

The user is presented right off with a directory to topics and services on the Web. It's a powerful and well-thought-out compilation, including entertainment, work and money, computing, shopping, connecting (communities), lifestyle, travel and on down the line.

The directory is a good jumping-off point that could be made more effective by narrowing subsequent searches. For instance, under "Books" if you typed Ernest or Fitzgerald, Hemingway or F. Scott would be prioritized in the return list. Microsoft says it is considering adding this functionality; as it stands, the same search is conducted if you're in a narrow category as Web-wide.

A couple of effective elements have been added to the initial search process. MSN lists "featured sites" that have particularly relevant information right under the search bar. To the left of the search list is a button offering the "Top 10" (if there are that many) sites, based on the sites' popularity Web-wide.

Both of these enhancements worked well, although not all the time. Some searches yielded only a couple of popular sites (or none at all), and others turned up no "featured" sites because they just did not exist (or MSN had not found sites that qualified).

In the case of the misspelled Cirque, for instance, the Top 10 sites provided much richer information than the generic list (and corrected the misspellings).

My favorite function is the "Saved Results" list, which stores search hit lists for future reference with just one click. This saves time in subsequent return searches on the same topics.

On another goal, however, MSN seemed to come up short too often. Microsoft wants the opening search to yield five to seven of the most relevant links. Too often, the best links were not on the opening results page. Again, this is an issue to be addressed in MSN Search's maturation process.

There are huge opportunities for improvement in the Web search process. Microsoft's ambitions are lofty but will take time and considerable resources and commitment to fulfill.

User Friendly appears Sundays in the Personal Technology section of The Seattle Times. Paul Andrews is a Seattle-based writer and longtime observer of the technology industry. Send e-mail to: pand-new@seatimes.com.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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