Computer software giant Microsoft has unveiled its new MSN search engine.
Ballmer: Aiming to surpass Google
The home grown search site rolls together many of the features and customisation tools seen on other search sites.
Initially, it has launched just a prototype, but the finished version will be ready by the end of 2004.
Microsoft plans to use the search site as a springboard to take a significant share of the advertising market from rivals Google and Yahoo.
In July this year, Microsoft updated and tidied up its MSN search page to remove unwanted adverts and to speed up the returning of results.
That search engine was based on technology provided by Yahoo and Microsoft will soon drop that in favour of its own home-grown search engine.
Microsoft has been testing this own-brand search tool since July and now has launched a test version.
In a statement Microsoft said its search engine returned results from five billion web pages - more than any other search engine.
But this quickly won a response from Google which announced that its index has now grown to more than 8 billion pages.
Prior to the Microsoft announcement, Google was only indexing 4,285,199,774 web pages.
As well as a large number of pages, the Microsoft search engine, which operates under the MSN banner, also includes a number of features that have already been seen on other search sites.
Any which way
Results returned by the MSN search engine will be arranged according to categories. Users will be able to flip between different results, such as web, news and images, by clicking on tabs.
Also on hand will be menus to help refine searches according to countries or languages.
Microsoft will also include what it has dubbed "graphic equalisers" that let people emphasise different characteristics of results such as ones that are more popular or more recent.
Google is king of the search space
The search site will also return canned results for discrete queries such as capital cities and other well known facts plus definitions, calculations, conversions and solutions to equations. Ask Jeeves has been offering similar services for some time.
Tony Macklin, director of product at Ask Jeeves, said: "The level of investment required of both time and money to enter this market shows it is clearly not an easy accomplishment."
He said many users would probably not notice the difference between the new MSN search engine and the old Yahoo-based one.
"We do not expect the replacement itself to turn the search market upside down," he said.
The search market has become much more competitive in 2004, largely because so many organisations realise that the main thing that web users do is search for information.
Research carried out by Ask Jeeves suggests that 80% of what people do on the web begins at a search site.
'We will surpass'
This also explains the recent interest in personal search systems that catalogue everything people have on their home computer. Firms such as Blinkx, Copernic, Enfish, X1 and Google and others have all released programs that index all the files on your PC.
Microsoft has yet to launch its version of this type of software.
Microsoft hopes that its MSN search will take a significant share of the advertising revenue that Google currently generates.
At its recent annual shareholder meeting Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer said the company would take on Google directly.
"We think there is a heck of a lot of great new innovation in the search space," said Mr Ballmer. "We will catch up. We will surpass."
But Microsoft has a long way to go to catch Google not least because so many people, 82 million per month, use the site. In its recent results, Google revealed that profits and sales more than doubled in its third quarter.