Continuing to expand its new search initiatives, Microsoft Corp. has launched a U.S. beta test of Newsbot, a personalized "virtual newsstand" on the MSNBC Web site (http://newsbot.msnbc.msn.com). Claiming to tap over 4,800 sources, the Newsbot also integrates news search engine results with sources already available from MSNBC, a digital- and television-based joint venture of MSN (Microsoft Network) and NBC News begun in 1996. The new beta test comes in the same month Microsoft announced changes to its search interface on MSN and began a beta test of MSNBot (http://search.msn.com), a prototype search engine which allegedly marks early development of Microsoft's future plans for competing with search engine giant, Google.
"The alliance between MSN and MSNBC.com offers an unmatched opportunity to provide consumers with the news that matters to them most—organized by their interests in real time," said Charlie Tillinghast, general manager and publisher of MSNBC.com. The Associated Press is also participating in the Newsbot service by authorizing the use of national and international news coverage available through its AP Online product. Moreover Technologies, Inc. contributes regular crawling of leading newspaper, television, and cable news Web sites as well as regional stories from the online publications of 50 U.S. news organizations. Other sources include Newsweek, the Washington Post, New York Times, and BBC.
When users click on a Newsbot headline, the system sends them to a publisher Web site for the article. Google News searchers, on the other hand, often go to cached articles. The rapid turnover on many news Web sites could make for a lot of dead links in time for anything but the most current news.
Newsbot delivers headlines in seven news categories—Sports, Business, Entertainment, Technology, Science/Health, U.S. News, and World News—in addition to allowing users to enter their own searches. As users continue to work with the service, Newsbot builds a preference history that allows algorithmic software to recommend news stories of particular interest to individual users. To eliminate or adjust this customization, users can simply delete items from their "History" lists. Aggregated hit statistics support general "most popular" article designations. Correlating reader interests with collaborative filtering software also allows for a "people who read this story also read" feature.
Users of the Newsbot service should notice one major difference from Google News and even Yahoo! News. The Newsbot service connects in every category to related reference tools. It integrates content from searches and news feeds with sources available on the portal. For example, users can move from stories on a country's political difficulties to reference material on that country, from company news to stock quotes, from entertainment searches to celebrity information. Although this approach could tie searchers to a narrower range of sources (and those available from and through MSN content providers), it can also supply instructive background information. Still, Microsoft's own Encarta encyclopedia was the one that attributed the invention of the telephone to an Italian—over Alexander Graham Bell—but only in the Italian language edition.
Microsoft has already begun beta tests of the Newsbot service in Europe (Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the U.K.), Asia (India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore), South Africa, and Latin America.
During the beta test, Microsoft is soliciting comments from users, stating, "If you see a way to help us do a better job, send us feedback through our webform. As we all know, computers aren't smart enough to really understand all our human idiosyncrasies—so please don't take offense—and help us improve our service." In particular, they want users to suggest news providers of interest and contact points for reaching them. The feedback forms also work for publishers concerned with content representation. At the end of the beta test, Microsoft will evaluate the feedback, update the service, and replace the beta with a final revised version, probably some time in 2005.
Greg Linden, CEO and founder of Findory.com, a small, well-reviewed personalized news search engine, advised that the success of personalization in news services would depend, in part, on the frequency of user visits. Linden considered Newsbot's personalization much superior to that of My Yahoo!, which places the customization arrangement squarely on the user's initiative, but considered Findory superior to Newsbot in its "more fine-grain" tuning of interests in redesigning whole front pages around user interests.
Despite the hoopla of press speculations about Microsoft's rivalry with Google, the closest competition for MSN in the news arena is Yahoo! News. According to Nielsen NetRatings' listing of the top 20 sites in Current Events and Global News, MSNBC placed third (20.6 million users) in June while Yahoo! News placed a close second with 20.9 million and Google News placed 11th with 6.3 million users. The leader was CNN with over 22 million visitors.
In other areas of Microsoft's search initiative, the MSN Search preview now covers some 1 billion Web pages in its index, but predicts the number will grow rapidly. MSN Search also includes direct access to the online encyclopedia, Encarta, as well as other reference sources. In its latest round of improvements in June, Microsoft removed paid inclusion rankings, clearly marked and limited sponsored results as "Sponsored Sites," and simplified the interface. MSNBot, the prototype Web search crawler, does not contribute directly to MSN Search at this time. For more information on the MSNBot technology or to report problems, Microsoft recommends sending e-mail messages to firstname.lastname@example.org.
With a rumored $100 million war chest for developing search tools, Microsoft appears to promise new improvements that competition may extend across the field. Users everywhere could benefit.