This morning, Microsoft unveiled its new MSN Search portal , a Web site that looks suspiciously similar to market-leader Google's search tool. Microsoft's search-engine plans had been widely reported but few people had expected the new MSN Search to so closely resemble Google, especially when the Microsoft unit's last major product, the MSN Toolbar for Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), so closely resembled Google's toolbar. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but does the MSN Search site go a bit too far?
  
"With this significant upgrade to MSN Search, we are delighted to now offer what we believe is the best search service available for the 350 million MSN customers," MSN Corporate Vice President Yusuf Mehdi said. "Among the many improvements, we're particularly excited to increase the relevancy of many search query results by up to 45 percent. This massive investment kicks off a wave of innovation from MSN that will move search beyond its current, limited offering to delivering the next-generation search experience."
  
The new MSN Search service is devoid of advertisements until you launch a search query; at that point, you'll see no more than three ads, all of which will be text based, clearly differentiated from the actual search results, and relatively innocuous. In my admittedly unscientific tests of the site this morning, MSN Search appeared to work as promised, with a minimum of distracting advertisements.
  
MSN is also testing a next-generation version of its search service that will feature a new algorithmic search engine built entirely on Microsoft technology (the current version uses Yahoo! search technology). The new site (see the URL below) will be online only for a short time. Microsoft expects to roll out this engine to its default search site sometime later this year.
   
As for the fairly obvious homage to Google, detractors are sure to point to earlier Microsoft inroads into the Web browser and media-player markets and wonder whether the company is again abusing its market power. Indeed, Microsoft is spending $100 million to improve MSN Search, and--with almost 100 million unique users every month--the MSN portal is already the most popular online destination in the United States. Users have downloaded the MSN Toolbar almost as often as they've downloaded Google's toobar, which has been on the market almost a year longer.