Microsoft's new search engine exits beta

Microsoft is removing the beta, or test, tag from Live Search, its next-generation search engine, and making it the underlying search tool at its MSN.com portal.

The move comes as Microsoft anxious attempts to gain traction in the search engine market, where it remains a distant third behind leader Google and Yahoo. Because search engine-based advertising is a fast-growing, multibillion-dollar business, Microsoft has invested heavily in improving its search tools and accompanying ad network. But it has failed to make a dent in Google's dominance.

In June, Google nabbed 45 percent of all search engine queries in the U.S., while Yahoo got 29 percent and Microsoft 13 percent, according to comScore Networks. This represents a market share reduction for Microsoft of almost 3 percentage points from June 2005.

The enhancements in Live Search are notable but many of them are available from other providers, so they aren't likely to boost Microsoft's market share in any significant way, said analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence.

"Microsoft has to exceed Google's capabilities, not just match them," Sterling said. "Search engine usage is fairly habitual right now. Microsoft has to come up with dramatic innovations and create an obviously better search experience. That's difficult given the fierce competition."

From Tuesday to Thursday, Microsoft will replace the current MSN Search engine on MSN.com with Live Search, which features a revamped image search service, an improved local search, a redesigned user interface and new tools to refine query results, said Derrick Connell, general manager of the Microsoft search business unit. The change will take place progressively on different MSN host servers.

When users run a search on MSN.com, they will be taken to a Live Search results page on the Live.com domain, but there will be links there to guide users back to the MSN.com portal, he said.

Live Search went into public beta testing in March at Live.com, the home page of the Live-branded initiative Microsoft launched last year to boost its software-as-a-service offerings. Live.com is also exiting its beta status this week.

Among the enhancements in Live Search are new options to view full-size photos in image search results and an increased number of "bird's eye" aerial images in local search, which is shedding its beta label in its U.S. and the U.K. services.

Live Search also features a new social search service called QnA, in which users can pose questions and have others chime in with answers. Yahoo, Google and others have similar question-and-answer search services.

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