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Microsoft unveils prototype search engine that personalizes results

U Rank lets users edit search results and share changes with their online connections

By Heather Havenstein
October 21, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft Corp.'s research arm has developed a prototype search engine with social networking features that let users edit and reorder search results, and share them with online friends.

The prototype engine marks Microsoft's latest effort to bolster its search business to better compete against market leader Google Inc., which captured 63% of the search market in August, according to comScore Inc. Microsoft held about 8% of the search market at the time, according to the market researcher.

Earlier this month, Microsoft unveiled a rewards program aimed at boosting traffic to its Live Search site. And industry observers have noted that Microsoft's so-far failed effort to acquire Yahoo Inc. was likely piqued by Yahoo's search assets.

Microsoft Research said that the prototype search engine, called U Rank, will help it learn more about how people use search technologies. The prototype was unveiled earlier this month.

"U Rank is a research project to help us learn more about how people organize search results as they go about larger information tasks, how people collaboratively search, and generally, how people edit and share searches," the company said in a blog post. "We believe that finding something on the Web is only the first step for many tasks. To better support people as they are exploring a topic … U Rank has general support for organizing, annotating, remembering and sharing search results."

U Rank lets users reorder and edit search results and move search results between searches, Microsoft said. Changes made to a user's own search results, such as moves, deletions, and the addition of new results and notes, can be made visible to friends.

Microsoft said that it envisions users tapping U Rank for various search scenarios, such as:

  • Organizing and annotating results by summarizing key information under each URL.
  • Keeping lists while researching.
  • Collaborating by sharing URLs with friends.
  • Making recommendations to friends by sharing preferred sites.
  • Mixing video and images with Web results.
  • Moving favorite sites to higher search result slots.

Frederic Lardinois, a blogger at Read Write Web, said that U Rank is different from the Digg-style search interface that Microsoft had been rumored to be developing.

"In U Rank, your changes only appear to your friends and don't influence the overall search index," he added. "The emphasis of U Rank is on collaboration and sharing. U Rank keeps a history of all your searches, but these are not shared by default."

Lardinois also noted that U Rank is clearly a prototype because search results take a long time to load, and Microsoft still needs to work out basic user interface issues.

"There is, for example, no way to move a search result from the second search page to the first, and the interface for dragging and dropping items sometimes doesn't work well," he said. "To be really useful, it would also be helpful if you could organize your friends into groups, so that you can share your searches on lists more selectively."

But, he added, U Rank takes search into a different direction by adding social interaction. "If your searches tend to be very broad, you would probably have to have a lot of friends to ever encounter an annotated or reordered result, but we can see how this new interface could be very useful if you are working in a team that is focused on a very specific topic."

Earlier this year, Yahoo also moved to open its search engine to allow third parties to add data to search results.

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