Fancy Search from MSN

March 30, 2006

Topics: Reviews, Usability.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a new search-engine-in-training called Mojeek. This engine, essentially nothing special, had a neat idea to provide users with a choice of search algorithms. Unfortunately, this apparently one-man operation hasn’t yet gotten off the ground with the idea.

Nevertheless, customizable search is becoming de rigueur for the search industry. Customized searching is a great idea, fundamentally. However, I do have some doubts about the universality of the application. Developing a customizable search interface which makes it easy for a search to be refined and saved is not something I’ve seen yet.

MSN has recently announced their fancy new search tool: "Search Macros". This is a fundamentally neat idea with a fundamentally flawed interface.

Search Macros are a feature of Live Search that make results more relevant for a given search topic. This is done by easily using, creating and sharing customized sets of search engine rules.

If these macros were truly easy to share, I’d be thrilled. If they were easy to create, I’d be even more excited. Frankly, if they were easy to USE, I’d be pretty satisfied. But I don’t see that as being the case. Criticism number one: how do I become aware of this service?

I actually learned of this service reading industry news posted at SearchEngineWatch. I’m sure this isn’t how the average user will learn about it – so why don’t I go poking around looking for other options. A great first look? Windows Live. It’s a search option for this engine, so of course this information will be available there, right!

Well, it’s not right there on the front page. OK, I’ll do a search and see if it’s presented as an option to refine my search. No. I don’t see any links here on the page that say anything like "refine search" or "advanced options" – I wonder what this little blue arrow does in the tool bar? Oh! There it is! It opens up a menu giving the option to create or find macros.

Well, the tool is definitely losing on ease to find – and, thinking as a member of the general public, I might be wondering at this point what a "macro" might be. But, fortunately, I’m a firm believer in the "click first, ask questions later" philosophy, so I’m going to go ahead and find a macro, whatever it may be. I’ve now learned about the service! On to complaint number two: how do I use this?

Well, I’m now on a completely separate site. I wonder why I need to deal with a completely different look for this tool? Does it also apply to other services? Well, it’s pretty easy to figure out. All these graphics with gear-like doohickeys must take me to macros. Not much information here – I wonder what "saltbaby.nadasurf" will help me find?

This is the place where you can view and install shared search macros from Live.com.

Complete first page explanation of the Live.com Macro Gallery

Ah! Well, now that I’ve clicked on that, I can see it’ll help me find info about the band Nada Surf. Well, I don’t care about that, I’ll go back. "Research.scholar" is probably more up my alley. This looks good! I don’t really understand that gobbledy gook down at the bottom, but I bet this’ll help me find great web pages…wait – no, no it won’t. This is searching for PDF formats and other local documents. Well, back to the drawing board.

Essentially, although it’s easy to figure out how to find and install these tools – it’s pretty difficult to see whether something is actually useful. What does this term.term labeling notation mean? Why can’t I narrow to search macros which are topical or document type specific? Well, just to test it, I’ll go ahead and install "beta.wikipedia".

The installation procedure is thankfully pretty easy. Not perfect, but pretty easy. You click on the button labeled "+Live.com" and up pops a new window of Live.com. You still have to notice the little yellow banner which says "Click to Install", and if you do, you’ve now got a macro installed. I now close this new Live.com window and return to my search in progress. And thus on to complaint number three: where’s my macro?

Wait a second – where’s my macro? How do I use this? There’s nothing listed in that drop down list with the blue arrow. Whoops! Looks like these Macros are session specific. Maybe if you’re logged in it’ll remember your details, but if not? Tough luck.

OK, enough criticism of the so-called "ease of use" for Microsoft’s search macro. Now I’ll be moving on to the creation process.

Creating a Search Macro on MSN Live Search

If you’re searching on the main page of MSN Live, that little blue arrow drop down also contains an option to "Create a Macro." I’ve had two different behaviors from this feature: the first and second time I clicked on it it gave me the option to log in to Windows Live using my Microsoft Passport Network login. I passed up this opportunity on both occasions – I’m not interested in creating a Passport account for this. Thankfully, Windows Live must have figured this out, because the third time it took me straight to the "Create Macros" interface. (I’ll be fair: this IS beta software, and I shouldn’t be expecting perfection.)

What I’m told about creating a search macro is this:

Create a namespace for your macros:
(This namespace is unique and will be associated with your Macros. Your macros can be used by others, but they will not be able to associate those macros with you..)

Ah. I see. OK. Hmmm… So, what’s a namespace then? Is this visible? If I decide to be funny and call my Macro something dirty, will people see it? What’s this used for? Clearly, this instruction could use a bit more explanation. There’s lots of space on this screen, and I think they could spare the space for an instruction.

The first thing I tried was to create a namespace using my own first name – Joe. I believe that Windows Live didn’t like that – although I didn’t actually get any kind of error message. The text box was cleared, and that was that.
My second try will be something more complex: joemacro. Same story. Huh. Let me do some research.

To create a macro click "Create Macros" in the dropdown menu on the far right side of the scope bar. (You’ll need to be signed in with your Passport. You’ll automatically be asked to sign in if you aren’t already.)

The first time you create a macro you will see the namespace creation screen. You only get one macro namespace and it will be tied to your Passport. Your namespace will be in the name of all macros you create.

Wait – so I do have to be logged in? Why did it let me do this, then? Why doesn’t it warn me? I’m afraid I’m losing interest!

Conclusions

The fundamental flaw with Search Macros is a lack of communication – the site doesn’t make it clear how to use the tool or what is required to use the tool. Windows Live doesn’t consistently track sessions, it doesn’t pass data back and forth, and changes interfaces halfway through the process. Is it a neat idea? Yep. Is it user friendly? Nope. Could it be user-friendly? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see!

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