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Microsoft Shows Off Search Product, but Sphere Gets the Attention

July 30, 2008

By Benjamin J. Romano, Seattle Times

Jul. 30–Microsoft’s new glowing orb got lots of attention at an event for visiting computer scientists Tuesday. But across the way, company researchers showed off something more central to Microsoft’s biggest challenge: catching Google in Internet search.

The orb, known as Sphere, expands on the touch-sensing technology Microsoft debuted in its Surface tabletop computer last year.

A camera inside the Sphere detects touches on the surface, allowing people to interact with the device, manipulating photographs or a map of the world projected from within. Sphere, highlighted during the company’s Faculty Summit, is a one-off Microsoft Research experiment for the time being.

Meanwhile, Dan Liebling and Steve Bush were exhibiting something that could become part of Microsoft’s Live Search engine as soon as this fall.

The software engineers are part of a research team working on search personalization.

“If we all search for the same query right now, we basically all get the same results, but we know that we can do better if we know something about ourselves,” Liebling said.

Personalized search produces more relevant results by taking into account a user’s recent queries, documents stored on his computer and potentially other factors.

For example, a search for “jobs” typically returns sites like Monster.com and USAJobs.com, Liebling said. But the same search, personalized for him, yields results including “Google jobs, which is interesting because I work in search; Dice.com, which is a technology jobs site; and [Apple CEO] Steve Jobs, because I work in the computer industry,” he said.

The personalized results are displayed above the regular search results, so users can pick from both. For navigational searches — when you’re just trying to get somewhere, say, to eBay, and not find something — personalization is not very helpful, Liebling said.

The team is working on when to display personal results and when to withhold them.

The personalization takes place on the user’s PC, not in the search engine, so potentially sensitive data aren’t shared with the search provider, Bush said.

Nearby, another researcher described work the company is doing to help tune its search algorithms by asking users to evaluate Web pages side by side and pick the one that is more relevant to their search query. The company has created games to encourage users to evaluate image search results and is exploring similar games for Web pages.

All of this must look good to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who last week defended the company’s continuing investments in Internet search despite financial losses and Google’s huge market-share lead.

“This is a category that’s ripe for innovation,” Ballmer said. “And that’s important, because if it’s not … we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.”

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

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