Originally created 09/22/03

Microsoft bets big on new searching technology



REDMOND, Wash. -- Microsoft Corp. may be the most recognized software company on the planet, but when it comes to searching the Internet, people are much more likely to "Google it."

Microsoft wants to change that, and it's betting millions that someday it will be as well known for search as Google is. The software giant's push comes amid an exponential growth in information - on desktop computers, on online photo albums, on Web sites.

"And the more information there is out there, the more difficult it becomes to find relevant information and content," said Rob Lancaster, a senior analyst with the Boston-based Yankee Group. "The information glut, as it is popularly known, is becoming a real problem for lots of businesses."

Beefing up search is a smart move for Microsoft, Lancaster said, and should strike some fear in the hearts of Google Inc., Yahoo! Inc. and other companies that offer search engines.

It won't be easy to shove those two aside, however. Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch online newsletter, noted that Google and Yahoo have loyal followings.

And several other players are also trying to grab some of the multibillion-dollar possibilities in Internet searches.

IBM Corp. just announced a searching technology, called WebFountain, designed to not only find text in a variety of places online but also analyze its meaning.

Still, Microsoft has a strong position currently as one of the Web's top three search sites.

"Unless they make some terrible mistake they're going to continue to be a very strong player," Sullivan said. "If they've decided it's important and they want to grind away at trying to solve the problem, they have a good track record of putting together good software to do that sort of thing."

Microsoft has its eyes set beyond mapping the World Wide Web.

It is developing search-related technologies to do everything from sorting through digital photos to combing through items scattered on your desktop computers.

The goal is to answer an Information Age-old problem - how do you find what you're looking for? - in a time when electronic information is becoming ever more dense.

"If you have to struggle through looking for things in hundreds of different places, it's just going to be intolerable," said Susan Dumais, a Microsoft senior researcher who is developing a tool for rapidly finding material that users have seen - regardless of whether it was an e-mail, Web site or document.

Some of Microsoft's efforts to simplify search on the Internet will soon be in place.

The new version of Microsoft's MSN Internet service, available this winter, will include a tool for retrieving digital photos based on images in the pictures. For example, users can ask their computers to retrieve all pictures that include a specific person's face or background.

But many analysts are most closely watching Microsoft's project to develop its own indexing and searching system for the Internet - and how the technology might later be deployed throughout the company.

Analysts estimate that Microsoft, which has long relied on outside companies to provide the search tool on its MSN Web site, is spending millions developing its new search engine. Microsoft won't comment on how much it is spending, how many people it is devoting to the project or what companies it might try to buy.

MSN decided several months ago it was time to create its own technology instead of relying on search companies Inktomi and Overture, said Kirk Koenigsbauer, general manager of MSN.com. He said it was unrelated to Yahoo's acquisitions in the last year of Inktomi and Overture.

Rather, Microsoft saw how important search has become, Koenigsbauer said, and contends that no one is really doing a good job sorting through the mass of Web sites to answer queries.

Indeed, if Microsoft can build a better search engine, "it's wide open at this point," said Charlene Li, an analyst with Forrester Research.

Koenigsbauer would not say when Microsoft's new search tool will appear, or what technical changes Microsoft is making to improve search.

"That's the secret sauce," he said.

But he said better personalization is one way to improve searching. For example, if MSN knows that the computer user searching for "pizza" lives in a specific ZIP code, it can deliver results of pizza places in that ZIP code.

Google and Yahoo representatives refused to comment on the potential search competition from Microsoft.

Beyond satisfying consumers, better searching can be lucrative.

Many companies pay or bid for inclusion in search sites' listings - typically in a cordoned-off section for advertisers - based on the key words the user enters. For example, a company that sells shoes might pay to be listed on queries for "Manolo Blahnik sandals."

Such paid listings are expected to generate more than $2 billion in revenue for search sites in 2003, Forrester Research's Li said.

Although Microsoft has not revealed many details about its new Longhorn operating system, the company has said it plans to build a unified file system that allows a quick search across everything in a computer, regardless of whether it is an e-mail or other specialized document.

Dumais and other Microsoft researchers are studying how people narrow down their searches for documents they've seen before and want to retrieve - using special dates as a memory cue or the sender of the document as an identifying characteristic.

Others, led by Gordon Bell in Microsoft Research's lab in San Francisco, are looking at how to build what amounts to a computer backup for people's memories.

Bell has developed a way to store phone calls, bills, pictures and music on a computer hard drive, with a search tool that can sort through it all.