Microsoft Joins Local Search Fray

Microsoft’s MSN has launched its own version of local search, joining both Yahoo and Google in seeking to make search more useful while opening marketing opportunities for smaller businesses, just the latest in a series of moves that suggest no let up in the rollout of new services and features from search leaders.

The launch of MSN Local Search beta underscores MSN’s efforts to move onto equal footing with its rivals but also is a reminder of the difficulty that the search engines face in differentiating themselves. Yahoo, Google and MSN now all offer virtually the same lineup of search tools and features.

In fact, some analysts say the near-constant parade of search upgrades and roll outs, in which one of the major search players or an upstart pushes a new product to market at least once a week, could have the opposite of the desired effect by confusing consumers.

Pinpoint Map Display

That might be particularly true since many search functions are first debuted in beta, or preliminary, form, only to be formally launched weeks or months later.

Meanwhile, the entire search industry faces an uphill battle to get consumers to turn to the Web to find local businesses and information rather than traditional sources such as phone books, analysts say.

Microsoft’s local search is being powered in part by Amacai Information Corp., which is providing white and yellow page listings for the search engine. The software giant said the beta version is the beginning of a larger local search effort that will eventually include more interactive maps as well as links to local business and residential databases and information such as news, movie times and weather reports.

Search results will be displayed with a pinpoint on a map and links to related content and commercial listings.

Map Wars Ahead?

Local Search replaces a “near me” search feature the site had deployed several months ago, a tool that won mixed reviews for effectiveness and was seen as a place-holder until a more robust local offering could be readied. MSN said the number of upgrades it has made to its search site in recent months is testimony to the commitment it has made to improve Web search.

“We are deeply investing in developing world-leading local search services that precisely deliver the local information consumers care about,” Christopher Payne, corporate vice president for MSN Search at Microsoft, said. “We remain committed to continuously improving our search service.”

MSN also said it would roll the Virtual Earth program, a mapping effort that uses satellite and other data, into the local search unit. Virtual Earth, itself seen as an answer to Google’s maps and its Keyhole satellite offering, will be ready by September.

The most interesting aspect of the MSN local launch might be the maps war it portends with the other search engines, especially Google, which has invested heavily in the Keyhole technology.

Kelsey Group analyst Greg Sterling told the E-Commerce Times that the instant availability of robust, interactive maps could be one of the most important developments in online search.

Search Fatigue?

“The various map technologies open up a number of possibilities for driving revenue and simplifying users’ lives,” Sterling said. Many users already recognize the inherent advantage the Web offers for finding maps and directions and there are clear ways to monetize that service as well.

Meanwhile, consumers may be dizzied by the array of search roll outs they face on an almost daily basis. Virtually every feature that Google, Yahoo or MSN launches — from mobile search to desktop search, video search to personalized search — is quickly matched by the other rivals.

The result might be that consumers no longer have a clear idea of whether any given search engine has technology the others do not. That confusion might be an advantage in some ways, however, by keeping users from straying to rival search engines, Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li said.

“If people don’t have a compelling reason to switch, they won’t do so,” she said. Since users don’t have the time or inclination to compare and contrast search sites themselves, they are likely to stick with what they’re comfortable with in the absence of evidence that a competitor has built a better mousetrap.

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