Thursday, March 09, 2006

Windows Live Search released

Yesterday Microsoft released their "Google killer", Windows Live Search. MSN has a search facility, but this is supposed to be much better, giving Google-quality search results while adding some extra stuff. Microsoft hopes to become the search engine of choice, and — coincidentally — cash in on the advertising revenue from sponsored links.

I gave it Windows Live Search (found at a whirl.

When you get to the web site you are offered a "portal" page that you can configure to your own liking, adding a link to your Windows Live or Hotmail account, weather, news services, etc. Google allows you to do the same thing with Google's Personalized Home page. Microsoft's page looks better, more professional, with shaded boxes and neat controls that collapse and expand various sections. Google lets you do much of that, too, but not with the same coolness factor. Unfortunately, all those controls seem to come at a price. Microsoft's site was pretty busy this morning and it took forever to come up.

I didn't bother signing up for Windows Live Search, but I did add Monroe's weather. The controls kept appearing and disappearing, based on whether or not my mouse hovered over them. The icons were pretty small (older or less co-ordinated web surfers take note). I asked for "Monroe, LA" and it offered both "Monroe, LA" and "Marion, LA" as options. I took "Monroe, LA", which is what I originally typed. Twice I managed to open another window to the MSN weather site. Eventually I added the weather. The big icons took up over half the height of the screen. This was because it gave me both Monroe's and Start, Louisiana's weather even though Start wasn't an option. I managed to delete Start, but couldn't get it to show up again. By contrast, Google gives me the same information in half the height, though Google's icons aren't as nice. (Actually, Google only gives me two days of weather while Live gave me three.)

A note about the weather: neither site was particularly accurate. Google said the high today would be 73F, which I think Monroe hit this morning, and that it was currently 59. Live said the high would be 66, and it was currently 63. The Weather Channel put the current temperature at 69. I stuck my head outside and it felt more like 69. Google's site will eventually take you to The Weather Channel. If you have to be inaccurate, at least use up less space.

The point of Microsoft's site is searching, so I decided to do a couple of searches. Like Google, Live has a single search box. Type in something, click the cute little magnifying glass "search" icon (or hit Enter) and it will give you search results. I didn't see any ability to do advanced searches. Google has a link to advanced searches, plus a help page that explains their advanced, and mostly hidden, search language. You may not know it, but Google's search engine will take in a number of complicated parameters to make it easy to search for exactly what you want. Presumably you can do this on Live, too, but there is no help to tell you how.

I first typed in "Delta Green". The search results were close to that of Google, but not identical (which is actually a good thing; if they were identical there would be no reason for a new search engine). I was impressed with the results of the search. The relevance was similar to Google. My own web site,, came up a little bit sooner on the Live search than on Google, and my blog appeared much sooner on Live.

I did a second search, this one on "Allan Goodall". The search results were, again, similar. Live had my blog profile right above my web site, while Google put the blog further below my web site. Apparently the fact that my blog is on a major site put it higher on the search list. I'm not sure I like that, as it's actually less relevant than my own web site, but I could live with it.

The results weren't as impressive with Live when I entered "miniatures game scale". Miniature gamers are often looking for information on the scale of figures. Live put a dollhouse seller's web site as the first two results. The next two results were for the store. The next two were relevant, for The Miniatures Page, but again the site was duplicated. Google, by contrast, had a smattering of different game sites as their first results, including Dean Gundberg's Starship Combat News in first place (I used to play miniatures with Dean at GenCon).

The search results were good enough that Live could make a dent in Google's user base, except that Microsoft did what it's famous for: making something big, bloated, but slick looking at the expense of functionality.

Google's search results are displayed as a standard web page. You scroll down the page, you click on a link to go the next page, you click on a link or your Back button to go back a page.

Live, in comparison, looks much cleaner. The results pop up in a very nice looking Javascript frame. For some reason, though, Microsoft decided to use new controls for scrolling up and down in the frame. You click on a slider control to go up or down several results. You can click and hold the button down for the results to scroll up or down continuously. It is slick, but there's no reason to replace the vertical scroll bar. Worse, all the results appear in the frame. Google, by contrast, shows you a set amount on a single page (you can customize Google to show as few as 10 and as much as 100). If there are more results than you see on a page, Google supplies a link to other pages with more results. This means it is quicker to navigate through Google's links.

Say you find yourself at result number 80. In Google this could be on page 8 (if showing 10 items per page) or on the first page. If on page 8, you can use your Back button or the link at the bottom of the page to quickly return to the first item. If they are all on one page, you can quickly drag the slider to the top to take you back to the top of the page. You can't do this on Live. You have to use their slider control to drag you all the way up to the top. Since the slider control isn't the standard vertical scroll bar, you have to click on the up arrow and hold it to get to the top of the page. This is a pain, and it comes from Microsoft putting style ahead of substance.

Microsoft wrote Live for Internet Explorer. Firefox will open up a link in a new tab if you click the middle button (usually the scroll button) on a web link. This feature doesn't work on Evidently the Windows Live Search web designers don't use Firefox and disabled the middle button click. The lack of this feature alone is enough for me not to use Live.

There are a couple of neat things about Live. There's a control that lets you see from 2 to 6 lines of content on the found links by simply sliding it left or right. If it is slid all the way to the right, you get an option to do a search within the web site picked up on the link. For instance, if you do a search on "Allan Goodall" and find a link to, you can click on a control that will let you immediately search for additional data. To do this with Google you would have to do a brand new search with "" somewhere in it. Windows Live Search is easier in this regard.

If you type a search criteria into Google that you spelled wrong, Google will helpfully add a "did you mean..." link at the top. Windows Live Search doesn't have this feature. I've used it enough times that I would miss it if I used Live.

I don't think Windows Live Search will be the Google killer Microsoft hopes it will be. Google's genius was in stripping web searching to its simplest form, give relevant results, and add helpful features. Microsoft's site looks nicer, but it's another case of Microsoft's trend of style over substance.

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