SearchTHIS: MSN Gets a Facelift

Late last week, as we were all planning our holiday weekend exit strategies (Vegas anyone?), MSN floated a search marketing air biscuit our way with a much needed "new and improved" look and feel for search results. MSN search had become infamous for search listing multiplicity offering many sources of information -- and a seeming total disregard for search users' declared or otherwise brainwashed needs.

The new MSN search page is perfect for our light and lean, low-carb, crazy society with a less cluttered appearance, fewer ads and a fresh approach to search. The new look is sans Yahoo! paid inclusion and MSN's own paid listings which is great news for users but not so great news for Yahoo! paid inclusion advertisers.

So what's all the hubbub? Despite research showing a big chunk of audience taking its leave of MSN search in the past year, MSN is still an online marketing powerhouse with strong content, a big audience, and lots of targeted ad opportunities. The network has, in fact, made great strides of late toward delivering a better overall experience for both users and advertisers. While this change might seem a bit small in the grand scheme of search, it makes sense to keep on eye on MSN search activity.

Here's a look at the who, what, where, and why of MSN search.

The whydunnit

MSN search hasn't exactly been known for being search friendly. The search area was a great case study in how to confuse both users and search marketers. In the iMediaLearning search marketing road show, we had a great graphic depicting search results from MSN that pretty much said it all.

Courtesy of iMediaLearning

A user search for a "digital camera" found a loosely organized mishmash (think Powell Motors' "The Homer") of search listings. There were featured sites sold by MSN in a "measurement-challenged" format, since keywords had to be bucketed and listing performance could not be measured independently. An advertiser had to test keywords in Overture's paid listings (found immediately below the featured sites) before contemplating a purchase in the featured area.

The bottom listings, if the user could find them, contained listings categorized as natural or organic, which also had some paid inclusion listings in them -- and therein lies a small problem. Users have now have a sense of empowered entitlement when it comes to being "in the know" as to what's paid and what isn't, thanks to special interest groups like Ralph Nader's, which led the charge for paid listings to be labeled "sponsored" in the first place.

Many searchers and search marketers began to feel paid inclusion listings misled users by not being labeled as such. The Sword of Damocles (sword of Nadercles?) is currently dangling above the head of all forms of paid inclusion. It's waiting for the next Nader-instigated FTC letter to providers demanding their listings be labeled "advertising" in the same way pay-per-click listings were forced to be labeled "sponsored."

The future of paid inclusion is uncertain, but it is clear that MSN has chosen to opt- out of having to deal with the paid inclusion debate.

The whodunnit

Without getting into the politics surrounding inclusion from the advertiser perspective, said listing format is a very effective way to get catalogs online, feed hundreds of location-specific content pages, and reduce the amount of spammed clutter in search results. Yahoo!'s highly publicized and successful content acquisition program (CAP) is going to take a traffic hit without MSN's eyeballs, but we as marketers hope that Yahoo! maintains its staunch commitment to the program.

The new look is cleaner and certainly more forthcoming with the who and what of paid listings, but MSN still doesn't own any of the search results it serves. Yahoo's Slurp and Yahoo! subsidiary Overture's paid listings provide their results. According to MSN accounts published in CNET, Microsoft expects the new search experience will improve search results by 50 percent.

Wow! I love it when people make blind bold statements like that because is next to impossible to disprove them given that so many factors can be labeled success criteria. Look everyone, we did a user study and half of our respondents said our search result is better. That's a 50 percent improvement.

Replication is the sincerest form of flattery, a thought I often have to keep in mind when reading other search marketing articles around the Web (thanks, guys!) and MSN search is no exception. The battle for search dominance continues and Google's uncluttered paid and unpaid sans inclusion format is a clear-cut winner, judging by audience growth over the past year or so. So, if you can't beat 'em (yet), might as well join 'em.

The wheredunnit

Google, Yahoo!, and MSN own the biggest chunk of search audience in the United States. Nielsen Net//Ratings data indicate the top three providers all own in the neighborhood of 30-40percent of search visitors with Google in the lead. Recent Hitwise research painted a nasty picture of MSN audience abandonment over the course of last year to the tune of 15 percent.

Microsoft is going to have to work to get those users back. Study after study shows users remaining loyal to search sites with specific purposes in mind. Another recent study from the search marketing firm iProspect about user attitudes showed, among other things, the largest portion of Google (60.8 percent) and Yahoo! users (72.3 percent) found natural results most relevant to searches, while users on MSN (71.2 percent) found paid search to be most relevant. While the "which is more important" debate when discussing natural and paid search is still left unanswered, it is clear that MSN searchers didn't rely on natural listings, assuming again they knew the difference.

The final doughnut

In the end, MSN's minor nip and tuck is a good baby step forward. The MSN crawler for natural search is expected to be released later this year, but if MSN chooses to learn from the past, we know that users prefer a clean looking search experience with advertising clearly separated from the perceived, naturally occurring listings. Though MSN search has suffered a bit in the last year, the Internet powerhouse can still use its search experience as an advertising loss leader until the big moment arrives when Longhorn will change our world. Caesar's Palace wasn't built in a day, and, if nothing else, this latest little move says "we came to play and we're to stay."

iMedia columnist Kevin Ryan's current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations. Meet Kevin Ryan at Ad:Tech, July 12-13.