Google still gets raves for its stark design and simple search results, but frankly I think it's boring. So I give Microsoft credit for offering some interesting new features in its latest crack at Web search: the Windows Live Search beta.
Some of the changes in Windows Live Search seem a little gimmicky, like the slider that shows more or less text for each result, but others--such as an "infinite scroll" of results, scalable image thumbnails, and easy search customization--could very well make your everyday searching more pleasurable.
It's unlikely many people will abandon Google for this beta, which is very much a work in progress. Several times while I was testing the service using Internet Explorer 6, Firefox 1.5, and SeaMonkey (with the Mozilla 1.8 engine), the site simply refused to load.
Of all the new features, I quickly came to appreciate Windows Live Search's ability to scroll through seemingly endless results. Still, in this beta the motion felt herky-jerky, as if it were advancing along notches on a gear, rather than smoothly scrolling down the Web page.
An added feature of more dubious value is the slider control on the top right of the Windows Live Search results that lets you view more or less text in each listing. Unfortunately, there's little difference among the three settings: Click to the left of the default to see only the page title and URL, or click to the right of the default to see a 'Search within this site' text box. When I tested it, searching via this feature sometimes worked and sometimes didn't.
The slider control is much more effective when you're viewing images, as you get six thumbnail sizes to choose from. Even better: When you hover over an image, it enlarges slightly, and relevant information--including the URL, size, and resolution--appears below it. While this is similar to the information Google provides with its image results (without the enlargement), Windows Live Search also lets you send an e-mail to Microsoft and tag the image as inappropriate, copyrighted, or irrelevant. If an image turns out to be copyrighted, the company will remove it.
Another new feature that will have to prove its merit is the search macro. It lets you search a group of sites you select with a single click, but only after you've logged in to a Microsoft Passport Network account. If you're already using MSN Messenger or other MSN services, this isn't a problem; some people, however, will likely hesitate before logging in simply to perform a Web search.
Once you are logged in, creating a search macro takes about a minute, after which the macro appears as a button on the right side of the Windows Live Search toolbar. During my tests the service again betrayed its beta nature, offering no way for you to move from the macro-creation page back to your previous search results. You have to return to the main search page and begin the process all over again.
In my informal testing I was at least as satisfied with the results that Windows Live Search retrieved as I was with the results of the same searches on Google. It's no real surprise that Microsoft sites dominated the results when I entered "Windows Vista" in both Google and Windows Live Search (a bit more so in the latter), but when I searched for "Firefox 2.0" the results were equally relevant--while noticeably different--in the two engines.
Assuming Microsoft can iron out the service's various wrinkles before its official debut later this year, Web users may have reason to rethink their search strategy.