The Windows Live Search Beta launch yesterday gives me an opportunity to write my first post on search, since moving to the search team back in November.

This release has many highlights, including a new UI featuring infinite scroll and a snazzy new image search. Speaking of image search, the Image Search Gadget is really cool - it lets you search for images from right within your live.com homepage. (To try it out, just navigate to  'add stuff' -> Windows Live -> Image Search -> 'add' from the live.com homepage.) The reviews on the new UI seem to be mixed - a lot of people liked it in general, but had some issues with the performance, unusual scroll bar behavior etc. Well, I know the UI team is eager to hear your feedback, so if you have any, leave a comment here and I will pass it on. You can also leave your feedback on the team blog.

But the feature I wanted to write about today is something called Search Macros. Macros are search modifiers that can help you perform a more targeted or specific search. In some sense, they let you build your own search engine and share it with others.

In this release, you can chose from a set of existing macros (built by members of the search team and some ETech conference attendees) which you can find here. To try a macro, just click on the 'add to live.com' link/image you will find on its page. You can then pin the macro on your live.com scope bar, alongside the default scopes like web, news and images, to use anytime you do a search in the future.

But why would you want to use a macro? Here are a few scenarios where they can come in handy:

  1. Narrow a search down - How many times did you wish you could restrict a search to only a few specific sites and not the whole web? Search engines provide operators to do this, but it is cumbersome to type a bunch of 'site:' every time. Instead, you could build a macro and use it to do the search whenever you want. The sidebargeek.windowslive macro is an example of this - it restricts the search to all the Windows Live related sites.
  2. Targeted searching - Let's say you are looking for information about a term, say, RAID, as in, RAID disk array. A regular web search for such a common word can give you a lot of unrelated results. What if you could tell the search engine that you are doing a reference search here? Well, the livesearch.reference has some modifiers that do just that. The very first link when you search for 'raid' with this macro is the wikipedia page for RAID! On the other hand, if you are a CS researcher looking to find the latest publications on RAID, you can use the livesearch.csresearch macro instead.
  3. Bring advanced search to the average user - Very few people actually use advanced search operators on search engines. For example, take a look at the livesearch.homepages macro. It uses an ingenious combination of modifiers that let you find people's homepages, but it is highly unlikely an average user is going to build something like that! Well, with macros, they don't have to - they can just use what someone else has built ;-) Imagine the next time your dad asks you for help with a computer problem ("I searched for it but couldn't find anything!"), and you just hand him a macro called, say, john.dadsupport, that is targeted to the set of sites or has the right keywords he can use to find support information!
  4. Make use of community knowledge - Even if you are an expert searcher, I am sure there have been times when you have had to try and retry several combinations of keywords to find what you want. For example, let's say you are a new dad or mom, and want to look up something about a baby's sleeping habits. You could do a regular search, but where do you start and how do you know which results to trust?  After all, you don't know which websites are the authorities in parenting. But you know what, someone else probably does! Sure enough, you browse through the gadgets site and find a macro called livesearch.parenting that should be useful. This is generally true of anything you are looking for - someone else probably knows where/how to look for a given topic better than you, since they have been through it or are experts in that area. Macros help to leverage this community knowledge in search. Similarly, it lets you share your expertise with others.
  5. Save away useful search parameters for future use - Lets say you were searching for reviews on digital cameras. I am sure you would have tried a variety of keyword combinations ('digital camera reviews', '"digital camera" review', 'best digital cameras' and so on) before you hit the 'right' one. A few months later, you might try the same search again, but now you have forgotten the right combination - d'oh! With macros, you can just save the query as a macro and use it in future, or share it with friends.

So I think macros are simple, yet powerful tools - try some out and see what you think! We will be adding the ability to create macros very soon, so do check back (I will blog about it as well)!

Lots of people have been talking about this feature in the blogosphere. If you have a comment, feel free to leave it here or better yet, blog about it!