A group of Microsoft researchers just presented a paper about a concept called BrowseRank that could really shake up the search landscape.

As the name implies, BrowseRank is Microsoft’s new take on Google’s PageRank algorithm — namely, the method Google uses to rank pages in its search results, based primarily on links. Obviously, Google’s approach is pretty darn effective, and must be grappled with by any company hoping to make money on the Web. But there are flaws, says a team of Microsoft researchers based in China. For one thing, it’s so easy to make a link that sites try to trick Google by creating things like link farms to boost their ranking. For another, links don’t tell you how long a user looked at a page, or how valuable the page was to them.

That’s where BrowseRank comes in. Instead of using PageRank’s “link graph,” the new ranking system would use a “user browsing graph.” By visiting a page and spending a lot of time on it, users would be implicitly “voting” for the pages that deserved to be ranked more highly.

It’s a compelling idea, albeit a scary one, since it would upend the way companies get attention online. (A Google spokesperson told CNET that PageRank is only one of more than 200 “signals” used to determine a site’s rank.) Microsoft is also trying to improve its MSN Search service in other ways, most notably with the recent acquisition of semantic search company Powerset. If Microsoft can actually make good on some of the promise behind these deals and ideas, it might be able to reverse MSN Search’s slide towards irrelevance. In the long-term, I certainly think that improving its technology is a much better strategy than offering to pay people to use its search engine.

Of course, there’s a huge gap between an academic paper and an actual product. But hey, that’s how Google started.