Microsoft Corp., the No. 3 Web search provider in the U.S., is rolling out changes to its search engine aimed at narrowing the gap between it and market leader Google Inc.
Microsoft is quadrupling the number of sites it searches for new information and overhauled the core technology that decides which results to display, said Satya Nadella, corporate vice president for Microsoft's search and advertising group.
(MSNBC.com is a Microsoft - NBC Universal joint venture.)
Nadella said the updates will be phased in by the end the month. Among them, he said, are improvements to the way Live Search interprets what users are looking for, even if they misspell a word, type in two separate words instead of a compound word or use a variation, like "driving" instead of "drive."
Live Search also will better detect what Nadella calls "stop words" — keywords or phrases that aren't considered unless there's a specific combination or context — like the name "Will Smith" in the U.S.
"It's a huge improvement," Nadella said. "We believe we can now compete with Google."
In August, Microsoft snagged 11 percent of U.S. Web searches, far behind Google Inc.'s 57 percent and Yahoo Inc.'s 23 percent. Making money from search depends on volume, and Microsoft has its eye on the billions of dollars Google rakes in from search-related keyword advertising.
Microsoft singled out four search categories for intensive attention: shopping; local searches and maps; health and entertainment.
When users type a product category or a product name into Live Search, they'll get links to back photos, shopping guides and reviews of that particular product. Microsoft culls product ratings from many sites and presents an average it calls the "opinion index."
The company cleaned up the look of its local business search and maps Web page, cutting out a second search box and a floating toolbar over the map that Nadella said confused users. Microsoft added one-click driving directions from major intersections, plus the ability to see real-time traffic conditions and find alternate routes.
Microsoft launched a dedicated health information search site based on MedStory, a health search company it acquired in February. The results include a mix of regular Web listings and specific health and medical content licensed from sources like the Mayo Clinic.
The software maker also added some glitz to its entertainment search results. Now, name searches for celebrities turn up photos, thumbnail-sized videos, and new features like the "Celebrity xRank," which gauges whether online buzz around a certain celebrity is currently positive or negative.
Brad Goldberg, general manager of the company's search business group, said Microsoft's goal in this round of search overhauls was to address the needs of the 70 million people who already use Live Search, rather than those who habitually use Google or Yahoo.
Through marketing, including incentives like loyalty clubs and rewards, Goldberg said Microsoft hopes to get them to use Live Search for more of their daily online tasks.
Microsoft is starting small because it "needs some success to fuel its future campaign," said Allen Weiner, an analyst for the Gartner research group.
Targeting existing users will increase search volume, but also help Microsoft gain momentum, Weiner said. He expects the software maker to go after Google's market share in 2008.
And, while technology is important, Weiner said that to unseat Google, Microsoft is going to have to do more than tweak its core technology because Web users tend to pick the industry-leading search engine.
"You need to do something fairly startling," Weiner said.