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The brains behind the '10 blue links'

By Mary Lane Gallagher | Window editor

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In the Hunt: Heidi Young (‘04, ‘05) helps lead a search team at Microsoft. | Photo by Niki Desautels

Heidi Young (’04, ’05) wants to help you find stuff. And she doesn’t mind getting in a good fight to do it, either.

So it’s probably a good thing she’s working for Microsoft’s search program, which is hunkering down to gain on Google’s dominance as the search engine of choice.

Young, who double-majored in Math and Computer Science before earning a master’s degree in the latter, was already fascinated with search engines when she joined Microsoft about four years ago.

“I really wanted to work for the company that was behind” Young says. “I love the fight we’re in with Google.”

Young now leads a team of about a dozen people tasked with “relevancy,” or making sure the “10 blue links” that appear on the search results screen are really what the user had in mind. For example, does someone who types “Jaguar” in the search box want to learn more about luxury sports cars? Big cats that stalk their prey? A football team in Jacksonville, Fla.?

If the jaguar-searching public tends to click on sports cars, Young and her colleagues can train the search engine to put more of those results on the first page. But then where would all the people go who are looking for the big cats and football tickets? To another search engine – probably to Google.

“If you tailor a search engine too much, we can be in trouble,” she says.

If search engines knew more about the searchers, what they’ve clicked on in previous searches, for example, or even demographic information stored on their computers, searches could produce much more meaningful results, Young says.

But Young knows many consumers are reluctant to serve up personal information; she suspects it will be an option for people who want a more personalized search experience.

For now, Young has been helping Microsoft re-imagine its search engine, scheduled to launch in June.

The look of the new engine will be different from the “10 blue link experience,” Young says, but not too different. Tests found that users were turned off by a search engine that was radically different from what they were used to, she says.

Young says her team is already making some headway on Google when it comes to their specialty: relevancy.

“We are right behind them in our trials,” she says. “In some types of queries, we perform better. In four years’ time, we’ve made up so much ground.”