A global beta, or test version, of MSN Search was launched on Thursday in 26 markets and catered to 11 languages, rivalling Google and Yahoo! by scanning some five billion pages on the world wide web.

The move marks a new strategy for the world's biggest software-maker, which has so far relied on the underlying technology of Yahoo! and others for its MSN Search.

"The release of our beta is a huge step towards delivering the information consumers are looking for online, faster than previous versions of MSN Search," Yusuf Mahdi, corporate vice-president for the MSN Information Services, said.

Microsoft has been developing its search engine for 18 months, and is trying to get a bigger share of the lucrative business of combining internet search and advertising.

Trouble for Google?

Microsoft's move could spell trouble for Google, which in recent years has surpassed Yahoo! as the search leader. This is because the new search engine will be incorporated into Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, which sells as an integral part of the Windows platform that equips 90% of personal computers sold around the world.

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Analysts say Microsoft's move is aimed at keeping Explorer and Windows as the main technology used for the internet, and heading off migrations to other platforms.

"Microsoft's search quest is more about the web than Google, as it was with Netscape during the browser wars," said Joe Wilcox at Jupiter Research.

"Like Netscape, Google poses no serious platform threat to Windows. The real threat is the web and its informational utility that does not require Windows."

Engine equals

As for the search engine itself, Chris Sherman of Searchenginewatch.com said the MSN engine is "comparable to Google and Yahoo! in scope, and for most of my initial tests, in relevancy as well".

MSN Search has some additional features such as the capacity to sort results by geography with the click of a "near me" icon. The search engine determines the geographic location by reading the user's internet protocol address.

"Speculation has focused on whether this entry by Microsoft signals the end of Google's web search domination. Not likely"

Chris Sherman,
Searchenginewatch.com

Sherman pointed out that Microsoft may be able to cut into the market shares of Google and Yahoo!, but that those companies will be improving their products.

"Speculation has focused on whether this entry by Microsoft signals the end of Google's web search domination. Not likely," he said.

"Google isn't going to stand still, as we saw with last night's stealth increase in Google's index to a reported eight billion plus pages, which means Google is likely working with a full index of more than 10 billion items - roughly twice the size of Microsoft's web index.

"Far from being a Google killer, MSN Search is instead a welcome new alternative for searchers, and a catalyst for sparking further improvements and innovations at other services," Sherman said.