SearchTHIS: The New and Improved MSN Search

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce MSNBot. Search engine marketing firms of the world rejoice! There is bot another reason to qualify your existence. As last week wound down, Microsoft offered a look inside its new and improved search.

But is it really new and different?

MSN's new search beta has the usual cacophony of listings and omnipresent multitude of search options. Billions of pages indexed -- and a like number of keyword combinations  -- reveal, you guessed it, sponsored listings provided by Overture intermingled with those sold by MSN, as well as algorithmic (a.k.a. natural) listings. The new algorithmic listings will replace Yahoo! search listings later this year, or early in 2005 when MSN search is slated to emerge from beta. 

Alright, nobody panic.

Starting Wednesday evening, I received the first of an onslaught of emails from search marketers and site owners wanting the inside scoop on MSN's new search technology. What will happen to my listings? How can I change my listings if I do not like what I see?

Let's see if we can separate hype from reality, while applying a little uncommon sense.

And now, the numbers

Nielsen numbers tell quite a story in search activity. According to data from September of 2004, roughly 88.7 million unique visitors named Yahoo! a top Web site. The numbers change only slightly for number two and three -- MSN with 88.6 million uniques and Microsoft with 84.6 million. Rounding out the top five are AOL with 70.5 million uniques and sad little Google with only 61.9 million.

Based on the aforementioned data, one would estimate that having a search utility on one of those top Web sites would be a happy thing. The problem is that top Web site does not equal top search engine. Users have been programmed to think of a portal as simply an entry point for the Web, rather than a place to conduct an active search.

Now, let's take a look at search activity for the same time period. Google tops the list with its nearly 62 million searches. Yahoo! Search comes in second with around 44 million searches. MSN and AOL (which is another version of Google search) follow with 38.7 and 25.3 million searches, respectively. Ask Jeeves rounds out the top five with a small but steadily increasing 11.6 million. Clearly Google is the powerhouse search kid on the block, while the competing search-share sites have their work cut out for them.

Top sites with late entries into the search game will have to, in effect, re-program users to think of their entry point as a savvy search site as well. They can do that with smart tools, uniquely intuitive features and a better search experience. Web history teaches us that users will, if properly inspired, find a new place to dwell.

Nobody beats our meat

For most search marketers, the new and different search means developing a keen understanding of how MSN's crawling and indexing technology will interact with client's Web sites. For the rest of the human population, winning hearts and minds with more efficient and relevant tools is the order of today and every day.

Trust me on this, there is a way to instigate a meeting point for these two worlds.

Google has sharp search technology and other great things going for it, and let's not forget the strides both Yahoo! and Ask Jeeves have made in their local activities, not to mention the butler's natural language moves.

The Microsoft engine has some pretty nifty search add-ons as well. For one thing, the search beta apparently took a page from Jeeves with a stride forward in natural language search, along with an Encarta tie in for questions. It's a little quirky and falls into the interesting-but-not-really-useful-yet category.

Popularity, also, can be a factor. Digging around in the Microsoft search help section reveals a similar ranking or "off page" site valuation to Google's PageRank.

MSN search also has a search builder tool that, among other things, allows a personalized sliding search barometer, similar to those found on shopping pages. Won't search optimization become a delight if everyone starts using those? It would transform the search world will be a highly customized place, rendering current ranking measures meaningless. 

Other nifty tools include local functionality with "near me" (sites are indexed according to geography) options and a display of when sites were added to the index.

History has taught us that users will find the best experience, enjoy it, and then abandon it when the next great thing comes along. However, one has to ask, is an enhanced search technology important enough to change user behavior? In the end, the real story is not the indexing or ranking technology, it's the features, or the add-on enhancements, that will make or break the MSN search experience.

Let the games continue

Right after Microsoft announced that it indexes over 5 billion pages, Google announced it indexes 8 billion. The conspiracy theorist in me says this whole thing is just a bunch of hogwash. Does the average Joe care a monkey's derriere whether a search site indexes 4 billion pages or eight? Probably not, since 7,999,980,000 of those pages are pretty useless to him. Of the remaining 20,000 sites, more than half are porn, so the choices get narrowed a bit more … or not, depending on average Joe's preference.

The search marketer in me says digging deep in the Web's content to help me answer life's more difficult questions is a good thing. Said internal SEM person also believes that discovering and evaluating the unique differences in search engines puts food on the table. However, there are plenty of ways to show value and provide said necessary funds for groceries.

The pragmatist and altruist in me (much smaller internal presence) notices a great deal of similarities in the big three's search technology. Value-added features and toys aside, they all crawl Web pages for keywords and rank pages based on popularity, more or less.

The Gene Roddenberry in me (he's in there somewhere) points out that, in one way or another, every search engine has publicly stated or suggested a mission to create a better or more informed world via search. It seems the greater good might be realized in agreeing on standards for the quotidian or perfunctory aspects of search (more on this below).

The agreement would thereby free up brain power for helping users build a better search experience for themselves, and send search spammers to the Klingon prison where they belong.

Prognosticus futuristicus

At last we come to the futuristic portion of our demonstratively one-sided discussion. MSN will release its desktop search shortly, but it will still have to fight the battles associated with being second or third to the table. In addition to being a household name, Google has made great strides in winning the hearts and desktops of searchers everywhere.

As clients panic about search positions and representation on the new Microsoft beta [link;], and as striking similarities force marginal changes in tactical optimization, I must once again ask the same question. 

Wouldn't uniform standards be of some assistance here? Obviously, crawling and indexing technologies have similar characteristics, so why not make it a bit more formal and let the add-on or value-added features be the determining factors in user search site selection?

Shouldn't we all get behind the C.O.L.O.N. (and no, I simply cannot let the C.O.L.O.N die,) or a similar effort to help prevent search engine abuse? Isn't it more important to have intuitive unique features that spark value-based discussions, as opposed to having search engines and marketers sitting around arguing over which search engine handles 301 errors better?

About the Author: iMedia Search Editor 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. In his off-time, Ryan enjoys serving as Vice President at Wahlstrom Interactive.

Meet Ryan at the iMedia Agency Summit December 5-8.