Monday, December 13, 2004


MSN Toolbar Suite

Well, as widely expected, the MSN Toolbar Suite beta was made available today. Its a hefty download, at nearly 5MB - and for that you get 3 toolbars - one for IE and Windows Explorer, one for Outlook, and one for the desktop.

The support for indexing PDF files is an additional download, and for this Microsoft point you at the Adobe site, where there is another 4MB download needed. It's most interesting to note that this is a standard download that Adobe have been making available for many years, not something they specifically produced for this MSN Desktop Search. The download simply implements Microsoft's standard IFilter interface, so its possible that other new file types can be similarly added by third parties. Its also interesting that Microsoft point you at the old version 5.0 of this download, rather than the current PDF Version 6 one, which weighs in at an even more massive 9.7MB.

Of most interest to me was the Deskbar, which I'm pleased to see implements "search as you type", though since the results are presented in a tiny list window, its a far from perfect implemetation (and if you have the Windows Taskbar set to auto hide, then when you move from the taskbar to the results, the window suddenly jumps position as the taskbar hides, and you find the mouse is now over a different result than you were aiming at). Realizing the limitations of the tiny list, the deskbar also puts up its results in an Explorer window when you press enter. Again there seems to be a problem with the window that it uses - I always use maximized windows, yet this Explorer window insists on coming up at some smaller size, and I have to click on the maximize button to be able to see the results.

The results seem to be of a fixed format, though you can vary the column widths. The results include a few sentences from the start of the file text - not really all that useful - this really needs to change to be a relevant bit of the file, with the search term shown in context.

The Outlook search box also presents its results in the same Windows Explorer window - so the advantage of integrating search into the email client is lost, since you are switched out of the program to view the results.

On the positive side, there do appear to be a good set of tools in the advanced query syntax, including the ability to target specific "fields" of the results such as the author field. I guess that Jake Zukowski had a hand in this feature of the search!

So, although I'm still playing with it, I'll round of this first look with a run down of how it measures up against the list of questions I posted earlier this morning:

There is not a limit on the number of terms in the main search window.

You can save searches in favorites or drag them to a folder or the desktop. Just select the address and drag it. They will be re-executed when you navigate to them.

In the main search window you will also find contextual snippets with the search terms highlighted.
The experiment I did to determine the 10 term term limit was the following:

- search using the entire text of the latest email I received
- the result page showed that email, with just the first 10 words in bold, but all others in the short snippet in the normal font.

Thanks for pointing out that the main UI allows the search to be added to favorites - I couldn't see any way in the Outlook UI to save a search, and missed the way in the main UI.

The results do not show a contextual snippet at all - as far as I can tell they just show the first 160+ characters of the file or email, and bolden any of the search terms that happen to show up in that short bit of the file. In many cases the results show no such bold words, because as is to be expected, the words show up some way into the file, not just at the very beginning.
Our highlighter technogoloy has a 10 word limit, but not the search enginer.

We store up to 4k of the textual content that we apply our hit highlighter to, so I'm suprised you think it's only 160 chars. We should be selecting what we think the most relevant text is from that first 4k.

-Tom (MSN DS Dev)
hey, jake zukowski here. yep the one in search query syntax. i was just narcisurfing and found your site. in fact, i have no ties to the msn toolbar development, but i did work at the 'soft for a couple years. i guess i left my mark. heh.
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