Facing pressure from Google and local-language rivals such as Baidu, Microsoft is seeking to distinguish itself again in China's competitive search market by expanding and refining its offerings.
Search capability was a major component of Microsoft's Research Asia Innovation Day in Beijing today, which sought to showcase the work of one of the software giant's three worldwide research facilities.
Earlier this week, data from web measuring firm Nielsen NetRatings saw Google and Yahoo's share of the worldwide search market increase, while Microsoft's MSN fell in share from 14 to 11 percent overall.
The company is in the process of expanding the web service components of various capabilities, such as search functions in Windows Live.
"I think it's too narrow to think of search as a market. I think of search as a capability," said Craig Mundie, chief technical officer for advanced strategies and policy at Microsoft. Search is an "important component of the basic computing experience", he said.
The Beijing facility is now home to its own search technology centre, according to Wei-Ying Ma, research manager of the company's web search and mining group. "This will be a base for search-related research in the next two to three years," he said.
The company plans to introduce better Chinese-language search capabilities this summer, Ma said, although he didn't specify how the results would be better.
Microsoft demonstrated several search modes at the event, including two types of image search. A photo-matching service, still under development, allows users to take their own photos, then identify and retrieve information about the location depicted in the photos through metadata matching. This could be used by travellers wishing to identify wayward photos, and also be tied into location-based information and advertising services.
For users seeking images, Microsoft's new search mode seeks to create "meaningful clusters", Ma said. A search for 'shark' brought up groups of photos sorted by species, by sub-topics – such as the Shark Tale film – and photos of shark fishing.
This is also extended to product searches, which can identify a product and assist the user in finding a retailer, Ma said.
For academic search, Microsoft Libra moves from ranking pages to ranking topics and people, Ma said. A beta version of Libra is shipping this month as part of Windows Live's Academic Search service.
Dr Harry Shum, managing director of Microsoft Research Asia, said web search and mining is one of his research centre's five major work areas, with approximately 60 people on its team.