A beta version of Microsoft's new search engine has gone live. The software giant is late to the revitalised market and has heavily copied features available in its competitors - Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and AOL.

A less-developed version of MSN Search was made publicly available for testing in July, but was no more than a search box that returned results grabbed from an index of about one billion documents. The new beta version however has an index of over five billion documents and lets users narrow and customise their queries in a variety of ways, said Justin Osmer, MSN Search product manager.

The service is expected to be ready for final release sometime next year and will eventually replace Microsoft's existing search engine technology that it licenses from Yahoo. "Our overall goal is to help users find whatever information they want faster," Osmer said, stating the obvious.

Forrester analyst Charlene Li has tested the search engine and described the relevance of its results as "not fantastic" but definitely adequate and "on par" with its competitors. The most significant thing is that Microsoft is getting close to having its own search engine, which will be the foundation for future enhancements, new features and integration with existing Microsoft products and services, Li said.

"It's good enough. It gets the job done. And it puts Microsoft at the table to play with everybody else," Li said. "The most important thing is Microsoft owns it, and because of that they can do lots of different things."

Some of the MSN Search beta service highlights are the ability to:

  • Return specific answers, such as facts, definitions, conversions and calculations, to certain direct questions by tapping content from Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia
  • Launch specific actions from the MSN Search interface, such as listening to song samples and buying and downloading songs from MSN Music
  • Narrow search results according to various parameters, such as geographic location, news content, language, images, Internet domains, Web site address and Web pages' popularity or creation date

A desktop search tool will be unveiled before the end of the year, and the plan is to have it tightly integrated with this search engine, to let users look for information as seamlessly as possible in their PCs and the Internet.

A beta version of the MSN Messenger instant messaging client already has a search bar built into it, an integration "we'll continue to expand upon as well," Osmer said.

Google still has the biggest share of Internet searches in the US with 36.1 percent, according to comScore Networks. It is followed by Yahoo with 30.6 percent and MSN with 14.4 percent. The beta of MSN Search is available at http://beta.search.msn.com.