This morning, Microsoft released a second beta of its upcoming MSN Search Web portal, which the company hopes will wrest control of the online search market from Google. The new beta features a new look and feel, the ability to answer direct questions, and an innovative Search Near Me feature that helps you more easily find geographically relevant information. In addition, the beta lets you specifically search for news, images, and music.
  
"The release of our beta is a huge step toward delivering the information consumers are looking for online, faster than previous versions of MSN Search," Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president of the MSN Information Services & Merchant Platform division, said. "With better results and more powerful search tools, MSN Search is creating a new, higher standard for online search--one that helps consumers find the information they need, when they need it."
  
The search engine behind the MSN Search beta has been under development for 2 years, Microsoft says, and supplies several unique features. The engine indexes more than 5 billion Web documents, making it one of the largest Web indexes available. And, according to Microsoft, much of that index is updated weekly or daily. As previously mentioned, you can ask direct questions, such as, "What is the capital of Massachusetts?" and receive a concise answer. To provide answers that involve definitions, facts, calculations, conversions, and solutions to equations, MSN Search integrates with Microsoft Encarta. But you can also enter the name of a musical artist, album, or song and retrieve related content from MSN Music.
  
As for the service itself, the new Search Near Me feature lets you tailor your search results to make them geographically relevant. Microsoft says that it's tagging Web documents with geographical information as they're indexed to make this feature possible. So, for example, if you live in Boston and search for a restaurant, the search results will be pertinent to that area.
  
Although MSN Search's possibilities seem exciting, my informal tests this morning were less than successful; the site responded to search requests with a "temporarily unavailable" message. In any event, if you're interested in testing the service, you can do so from the MSN Search beta Web site. The final version is scheduled for release sometime next year.