Microsoft: Finding a Vertical Search Breakthrough

With all the talk lately about Microsoft’s search plays–the shrewdly coercive debut of its Windows Live Search service, and its partnership/talent raid–a new feature in MS’s search portfolio has quietly surfaced in beta form. It looks good.

In February our friends in Redmond purchased Medstory, a search engine serving the health vertical. [This is all part of the company’s plan to enter the enterprise and consumer health spaces in a big way, summarized nicely in this blog entry by ZDnet’s Mary Jo Foley.] The first public display of MS’s deployment of this technology now appears on MSN’s Health and Fitness pages.

Quick tour: From the Health and Fitness home, search for your favorite condition, treatment or disease (scoliosis, let’s say). At the top of the results you’ll find something called a “dashboard,” a graphical arrangement of results within key subtopics (“Diseases and Conditions,” “Tests and Procedures” and so forth).

Each item in that category is represented by a bargraph-style bar indicating its relevance (“spinal fusion” tops the “Tests and Procedures” subtopic, for instance).

Click on that and you get a vetted list of relevant results from credible sources. First result in the case I’ve described: a Healthwise link to “spinal fusion for scoliosis.” Results can be further filtered by source (Harvard, Mayo Clinic, Runner’s World (!), etc.)

I’m fairly familiar with health vertical, from my time toiling in the inkfields of The Washington Post health section and the digital dairy at Revolution Health. That said, a few observations:

  • The dashboard graphic is powerful, probably the most-instantly “gettable” method of arranging results  I’ve seen, certainly in the health space and (I think) anywhere in searchland.
  • The results at this point are thin–the algorithms have not digested enough quality health information providers to offer even a screenful of choice for many “long tail” conditions. [It does fine with heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, etc.]
  • The popup triggered when you choose a 3rd-level result (spinal fusion, in the example above) is annoying as hell, since it makes you choose between “scoliosis and spinal fusion” or just “spinal fusion.” If I were taking this out of beta, I’d eliminate the popup and drive the user right to results for “sciolosis and spinal fusion,” putting “search spinal fusion alone” as an option above the results. 
  • Graphically, the closest competitor in the health space is Healthline, a well-machined engine that presents results in a wicked-cool “HealthMap,” which presents results via a kind of knowledge tree. 
  • Brother Google in the health space offers something similar to the MSN/Medstory narrow-your-search gambit, but in its Googleish manner offers only a top-of-screen layer of wordlinks to do the narrowing. But Google’s results are topped with often instructive images and the results are richer. [With one knock-you-back-on-your-heels exception: It’s first link results under “scoliosis” comes from–I am not making this up–Wikipedia. Google health squad, code blue!]
  • Then there’s WebMD’s weak-pulsed search, a product of the wayback machine with some search-narrowing tool add-ons. Unless the 650-pound gorilla in the health consumer space has something extraordinary in development, they may find themselves in trouble.

With vertical search all the rage among the geekocracy and VCs alike, the MSN/Medstory tool is worth a look. At this point, though, I’d still use Google to find stuff on scoliosis. But our friends in Redmond are used to playing catch-up. Sometimes they succeed, even in a truly competetive space.    

Explore posts in the same categories: health, Microsoft, search

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