How to Build a Better Search Engine: MSN Launches New Internet Search Service

REDMOND, WASH., Feb. 1, 2005 — In 1998, when MSN launched its first search engine, Web search wasn’t quite the big deal it is today. Back then, it was a nice feature to provide, and MSN teamed with LookSmart, and later, Inktomi–now part of Yahoo–for the necessary back-end search technology. In recent years, however, search has become an essential offering, particularly for a company such as Microsoft, where competitive advantage is based on the ability to lead and innovate.

So in January 2003, when Ken Moss, general manager of MSN Search Development and Testing, was asked to explore the possibility of creating a team to build a new search engine based on Microsoft technologies, it was almost inevitable that he would get a go-ahead. But if the decision to proceed was relatively easy, the process of building the search engine from the ground up was quite a bit more complicated. The launch of the new MSN Search — the first version based entirely on Microsoft innovations and technology — marks a major milestone in the ongoing quest to build the industry’s leading search service.

Work on the new search engine officially began in March 2003. Close collaboration between the MSN Search team and Microsoft Research played a key role in the development process from the beginning.

“Early on, it was very daunting, because we had a huge mission and very few people to work on it,” says Moss. “But while we weren’t fully staffed, we had deep ties to Microsoft Research, so there were a lot of experts we could pull into the process in areas like Web crawling, index serving and measuring relevance. It’s been a phenomenal partnership, and we wouldn’t be shipping now without their help.”

Faced with a monumental undertaking, the MSN Search team opted to take an almost purely incremental approach to tackling the challenges involved.

From 24 documents to 5 billion

“We started out by breaking everything down into small pieces. Then we’d prototype, test, even throw things away and start over when necessary,” Moss recalls. “Our index has 5 billion documents today. Our first index had exactly 24. Then we built it up to 500. Then 2,000. Then we added more code to get to 100,000. By summer 2003, we were up to 500 million documents, and our Web crawler was better than our competitors’ by a good margin.”

Feedback and input from people outside of Microsoft also played a central role in the development of the new search engine. Because Microsoft has been operating a search service since 1998, MSN has volumes of information about what users search for, how they search and how satisfied they are with MSN Search. That information informed the work of the team and helped guide some significant changes to MSN Search that were unveiled earlier this year.

“We knew that we ranked third for customer-satisfaction metrics,” says Oshoma Momoh, general manager for program management within MSN Search. “Last July, we launched a refresh that had fewer ads and provided greater clarity about advertising. We knew that fewer ads meant less revenue. But we also got a 20 percent improvement in satisfaction literally overnight. That refresh really helped us get ready for some of the work we wanted to do with the new MSN Search.”

The first technology preview of the new MSN Search was unveiled in July 2003. Beginning with that technology preview, the search team pursued a number of innovative avenues to solicit suggestions and feedback from search-industry experts, webmasters and consumers.

One of the most successful programs was Search Champs, which included about 30 of the world’s most influential technology enthusiasts from the field of search. Invited to Microsoft in October, they were given a special in-depth preview of the beta release and encouraged to provide detailed input on how MSN could improve the service, both in the initial release and beyond.

An MSN Search blog launched in November provided another vital conduit for feedback.

“The blog has been a goldmine for user feedback,” Momoh says. “And while we did get some classic anti-Microsoft stuff, we received tons of great suggestions, ranging from new feature ideas to bug reports. Through the blog, we were able to establish a two-way connection we never had before.”

Members of the MSN Search team also participated in a number of online forums, such as Webmaster World. Online feedback, surveys and usability studies also played a key role.

“I can’t emphasize enough how good I feel about the dialogue we’ve engaged in with customers,” Momoh says. “That’s really helped us create a new version of MSN Search that goes a step beyond other search engines. It’s great that we can return 100 million pages in milliseconds, but everyone can do that. What we can now provide is answers to specific questions that are more relevant than anyone else’s.”

Moss says that the ultimate credit goes to a team of researchers and product-team members at MSN and Microsoft Research who showed unusual dedication in tackling one of the most difficult, complex problems in computer science. The end result is a search engine that is ultimately expected to establish Microsoft as the leader in Web search.

“Everyone involved signed up to tackle one thorny issue or another, and they all over-delivered,” he says. “Everyone on this team put their egos on the line, because we all felt that if we didn’t produce the very best search engine, then we would have failed.”

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