There I was, standing in front of a workshop full of seriously proficient Internet searchers, and running through my list of Google alternatives. I get to MSN Search, hit the bookmark and stand there in bemused silence for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only about 10 seconds. In the couple of hours since I had checked the site, MSN Search had become Windows Live (http://www.live.com/).
The screen may look very different but the search features and commands, some of them well hidden, are the same. The home page is the most obvious difference but the Search Builder, now renamed Advanced Search, has disappeared. It reappears once you display your results list. Why? I can only assume that Microsoft thinks that all searchers only resort to advanced search options when their initial basic search has failed. Not that it really matters, since some of the really good advanced options are not listed in the menu anyway and you have to use them by going into ‘command line’ mode.
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The home page now has links for Web, Images, News and Local search but the free access to Encarta has been dropped. I have, though, seen various reports saying that you can still get to it by searching on encarta plus your search terms or site:encarta.msn.com plus the terms.
It would also be helpful to have the More option on the home page rather than having to generate a results page to see it! At present More gives you access to a Feeds search and Academic Live, both of which are still in beta. I first reviewed Academic Live in April 2006 (http://www.rba.co.uk/rss/2006/04/windows-academic-search.html). Not much seems to have changed in functionality but I note they have added many more journals to the database, including biomedical and healthcare titles. I subscribe to just about every official Microsoft alerting service but the enhancements do not seem to have made it to any of them. This is an ongoing problem with MSN Search/Windows Live; if you want to keep up with developments you have to regularly hunt around the site for changes and review the help files for the new and really useful commands*.
The Local search works pretty well, but I need to look at it in more detail and compare it with other similar services before I pass final judgement. One problem that struck me straight away was that although it started off with a UK map it transported me over to the US when I searched for churches in Caversham. I had to include UK in the location to force it back to the UK. The satellite images are slightly higher resolution and crisper than Google’s for my location, and they seem to be more up to date.
Apart from Academic Live, I am not yet convinced that I should be using Live.com as my regular search engine. The web search results still seem to be more consumer and retail orientated than Google and Yahoo, and I am usually looking for research or statistics on a subject. A search on ‘gin vodka sales uk’ in Google and Yahoo will bring up market research reports and industry stats galore: on Live.com, the first is a statistical overview but the remainder on my first result page are online stores where one can buy gin and vodka! This is not actually a problem, and there are times when you may want to bias the search in this way, but it is as well to be aware of it.
Overall, a nice clean interface but very little has changed under the bonnet and some useful search features have disappeared from view.
*One useful command that you might have missed is the feed command. The scenario: you are, like me, a news and RSS feed junkie. You have found a really good news site covering your subject or industry sector but surely it cannot be true that they do not have RSS feeds? Check by using the Live.com feed command combined with the site command. For example:
Try it on the BBC web site and you’ll discover that they have 1,956 feeds!