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A giant's shadow falls across the search landscape

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To compete more aggressively in the ever-expanding search space, software behemoth Microsoft Corp. expects to release its own search engine early next year. The new technology will completely replace MSN's current search system, which pulls results from Yahoo!'s engine. Yet while many industry observers are already fixating on the battle between MSN, Google, Yahoo! and Ask Jeeves to offer the biggest, fastest and best search tool, it's important for b-to-b marketers to remain focused on the most important element of the search experience: the end user.

Built from the ground up, MSN's new engine (beta version available at beta.search.msn.com) combines Microsoft's own software and hardware to index the Web and rank results. It features geographical search capabilities, which provide results based on proximity to a specific location, and the ability to enter real-language questions. Microsoft's new technology also allows users to set preferences ranging from the displayed language to the number of results per page.

While none of these features represents a significant differentiator in the search space-or won't for long-Microsoft's vision is to take search far beyond where it is today. Having recently acquired Lookout Software, the developer of a technology that allows users to scan e-mail archives through a search engine query, Microsoft continues to advance toward its ultimate goal. That said, the software king is playing catch-up in the search space, as Google released a beta version of its desktop search in October. Furthermore, Microsoft appears willing to put off generating its own paid search-related revenue, as it recently committed to using Overture's pay-per-click listings through mid-2006.

As the search landscape evolves, users will become more comfortable with the advancing technology and will expect more. Demands for greater personalization and customization will be joined by requests for faster and more flexible tools. In turn, a marketer's ability to reach target customers via search engines will change. Competition will extend to e-mail archives, cached Web pages and desktop files.

Microsoft's entry into the search engine arena will likely cause a splash in the marketplace. But, given the standard set by Google, we won't know preferences have truly changed until a colleague tells us he found what he needed after he "MSNed it."

Jim Grinney is a principal with 90octane, Denver. He can be reached at jimgrinney@90octane.com.

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