The latest SEO talk this week has been all about Google’s algorithm changes that presumably favor big brands, but Microsoft Live Search has been experimenting with changes of its own that seemingly would help big brands the most (although ironically, big brands may not like it all that much). Today, I came across some interesting Live Search changes that I can only reproduce on one computer running XP and only on Internet Explorer when I search from live.com (rather than the toolbar).
Best match: understanding searcher intent
Microsoft Live Search appears to be flighting a new instant answer called “Best Match” that highlights what presumably Microsoft finds to be ideal result for the query. This new feature isn’t triggered for all queries and seems to appear using similar criteria as Google’s sitelinks. The query has to be unambiguous and navigational. It’s less “we’re very confident this result is the best” and more “we’re very confident that we know exactly what you are searching for”.
Why does this new feature favor brands? Search engines can be more confident of a searcher’s intent with a branded search than with most other types of queries. Someone searching for [woodland park zoo] likely is looking for their site specifically. Someone searching for [zoo] could be looking for lots of different things.
More than just brands
However, this new instant answer isn’t being triggered for brand searches only. For instance, a search for [fug] brings up the Go Fug Yourself site (unfortunately, it brings up their old site that’s now redirecting).
Changes from regular listings
It appears as though this new featured result replaces the URL’s normal first position in the search results. Site owners should be pleased that this new placement with bold, larger font will draw even more of the searcher’s attention. Unless, of course, searchers skip right over it, thinking it’s an ad.
There are differences beyond simply being highlighted as the best match. The URL shows up above the snippet rather than below it. The cache link is gone. And the “show more results from” link is no longer.
iPod query before:
iPod query after:
Better for searchers, but better for business?
This feature includes a few other things that businesses may not be too happy about.
In the Honda result, for instance, the best match also includes links to “sites like this”, including Ford and Chevrolet. How does Microsoft decide what links to include? My best guess is that they use click data from previous searches, but they could use any number of signals.
The box also includes a customer service number. This is one addition that not all companies will be happy about, but I, as a searcher, am estatic about it. Just last week, I was ranting about US Airways hiding their customer service number. And now, all I have to do is a quick search, and there it is.
A search for [google] brings up not only sites like this that include Live Search and Yahoo, but also includes a “search this site” function that I found amusing. (Even funnier, a search for Live Search brings up a similar result for live.com.)
Interestingly, while Google’s “search this site” feature performs a site: restrict search within Google, Live Search’s version uses the site’s own search functionality and returns the search results within the site itself. (In other words, using the search box under the Google listing does an actual Google search and shows results on google.com, and using the search box under the Amazon listing uses Amazon’s internal site search and brings up results on amazon.com.)
And of course, search engines have to focus their efforts on what’s going to be the best result for searchers. Best match can be a bit uneven. The “sites like this” list for [oreilly media] is perplexing, for instance. (Autozone? Really?)
This isn’t the only example of Live Search’s experiments to guide the searcher. Check out the results for [buffy the vampire slayer]. Related searches appear to the right (Google has these at the bottom of the page), but Live Search breaks up the page into categories. The first 5 listings are general matches, but this is followed by 5 sets of 3 results (for a total of 20):
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer Cast
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer Walkthrough
- Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- Play Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Sound familiar? It might if you’ve used hakia. They have a similar layout called “galleries” that’s more robust. That search for [buffy the vampire slayer] on hakia includes a far greater number of categories such as channel, news and interviews, fan sites, trivia, and merchandise.
The categories don’t appear for all queries, and their titles change based on the topic. A search for [dollhouse] includes categories for cast, spoilers, and episode guide.
This can can change the entire dynamic of the page. For [dollhouse] for instance, the typical Live Search results include only 2 of 10 results about the new TV show (and 8 results about other things, such as actual dollhouses). The new categorized results include only 3 non-TV results (the first category includes the original 2 about the TV show and 3 of the other original 10) and 17 about the show. In cases like this, it seems like the decision to include categories was based more on the fact that Live Search could easily extract categories for the topic (as it’s a TV show with standard major subsearches) than searcher need (since it’s a new show, I can’t imagine searcher volume for it is all that high).
Are categorized listings an improvement?
On the one hand, this layout can be a handy shortcut for searchers who type in notoriously short queries that are difficult to determine intent from. If a searcher types in the name of a TV show, for instance, they want to know something specific about it, like the schedule, or episode summaries, or photos. By providing these categories, Live Search is helping those searchers who might be otherwise frustrated with results that don’t exactly match their need.
On the other hand, by filling the page with categories that match one possible meaning of a query, other meanings are crowded out (such as in the [dollhouse] example), and searcher frustration could increase.
The categories themselves don’t always seem to particularly relevant, nor do the listings within the categories always match up very well. A search for [shoes], for example, includes a category for “brands of shoes” that doesn’t include listings for any actual brands.
The future of search
Clearly, the major search engines will all continue experimenting with the results they show searchers and will keep trying to better identify intent for an improved search experience. These particular Live Search experiments aren’t perfect, and they may never be rolled out to a larger audience, but even the data from the experiments themselves should help Live Search improve. The structured format of these results (combined with their acquisition of Powerset) makes me wonder if Live Search is moving towards the Yahoo! path of encouraging semantic web standards. A Microsoft spokesperson told me:
“Live Search regularly flights new concepts to gain insight on how users respond to different features and user experiences.”
New interfaces like this are interesting, but if the results they showcase aren’t relevant enough, then searchers won’t remain engaged. And on that front, Live Search still has some work to do.
Postscript by Barry Schwartz: LiveSide blog thinks these new search tests might be leading to a spring or fall Live Search brand update. Yes, there have been many rumors that Microsoft will yet again, rebrand Live Search to something else.
Postscript 2: See Kumo: Microsoft Tests Search Ideas With Its Own Employees for screenshots of an internal search engine that Microsoft is testing.