SearchTHIS: MSN Search

An interesting thing happens to the human consciousness when one is faced with one’s own untimely demise. It’s true what they say about death and your last thoughts -- it comes to you all at once and leaves just as quickly. Last Thursday, on the highest of holidays for an Irishman, I really thought the end was near.

My Seattle to JFK flight was in trouble. Not real trouble, perhaps, but enough trouble to justify our very own runway (the longest one at Kennedy Airport, according to the pilot), quite a few fire trucks and more than one nervous look from flight attendants and my fellow passengers. Apparently, the flaps weren’t working. These things are pretty important when you want to land the plane. Without flaps, you can’t slow down, and if you can’t slow down landing safely is something of a problem.

So there I was, in a high speed emergency landing. While everyone else was reliving life events and childhood memories, I was having visions of search. Specifically, Microsoft search and how it would change my life should I make it through the next 30 seconds of abject terror.

The search world

It's a testimony to the sad, pathetic existence of a search engine marketing guru: Instead of thinking of my wedding, first child’s birth or some other happy memory, I envisioned a world in which user-defined need was seamlessly integrated with advertiser desire. Of course, none of that family stuff has happened yet, but it would have been nice to think of something else … anything else.

I suppose it was only a slight coincidence that MSN had just announced they have some pretty sharp new search capabilities for both searchers and paid search advertisers (none of which will be ready for release any time soon, unless you are in France or Singapore). Inevitably, a hot debate will ensue as to how the software monolith will try and take the lead in search.

A short time ago, MSN unleashed a hundreds of millions of dollars strong multimedia outlet awareness barrage for search, so naturally one would think stealing visitors from the other top search destinations (Google and Yahoo!) would be goal number one.

How are they doing?

Well, according to comScore networks data for January 2005, MSN has about 16 percent of search audiences while Google and Yahoo! have about 35 and 32 percent respectively. Unfortunately, MSN’s share grew by only .1 percent while Google grew by 2.5 percent and Yahoo! gained about 1 percent.

Maybe market segmentation alone won’t move MSN into number one. While MSN is known as a powerful portal, it has yet to transform itself into the be-all and end-all for search. Taking a page from competitor Yahoo! might provide at least one solution. It wasn’t too long ago that Yahoo!'s Yellow Pages area was little more than an information outlet. With careful productization and delicate encouragement, users were directed to the phone book area and it became a revenue-generating local information super destination. 

Lesson learned? Looking inside may be as beneficial, or even more so, than looking outside.

Vestigial search

Among the search engine marketing revelations and life experiences flashing before my eyes was a comment I made on a trade show panel recently relating to organic or natural search listings being less than ideal in helping users find what they seek efficiently. Said comment wasn’t all that well received, and I went on to defend my statement by declaring the reason we have online advertising or paid search in the first place relates to inefficient search results.

I can’t even begin to describe the joy when I noticed that Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer had a similar thought process. “Search, people say, 'oh, search is so great.' I don't know about the rest of you, I think we're sort of 5 percent, 6 percent, 7 percent into the innovation perspective on search,” said Ballmer at the MSN Strategic Account Summit. “It's still very hard, actually, to find what you're looking for on the internet.”

Oh sure, when I say it, I catch all kinds of grief, but when the CEO of Microsoft … on second thought, never mind, that makes perfect sense.

The horrible truth in search is, it’s still far too challenging to find what you are looking for. Any innovation, paid or otherwise, should be a welcome change. The challenge for MSN will not only be pulling audience share from other sites, but also refining search overall.

We saw a good start in the refinement process in MSN search’s Encarta integrated search results, but that should only be the beginning. MSN representatives also demonstrated the ability to communicate with the search engine in a less cave-man speak manner last week, by asking more complicated questions of the engine when locating March Madness statistics.

Integration demonstration

Right before the big transcontinental jet touched down, I looked out the window to see a high speed blur of ambulances and fire trucks. I could have sworn I saw a few lawyers behind the ambulances as well, and I remember thinking, albeit briefly, wouldn’t it be great to have all the resources I could ever want in my advertising time of need?

The defining characteristics of near-term innovation in advertiser intelligence can be seen in the new MSN adCenter, also revealed in Redmond last week. If search could use some refinement, so could paid search knowledge gathering and implementation devices.

The new MSN adCenter promises to change search management as we know it. Multiple ad formats (not just search listings) will be included in a targeting rich environment. In addition, to match technologies and keyword suggestions, MSN will layer registration data and third party psychographic information to provide a significantly stronger advertiser experience.

Yusuf Mehdi, Corporate Vice President, MSN Information Services & Merchant Platform, summed up the innovation well. “Instead of going by keywords and trying to intuit who might want that keyword, you can now go direct to find out who is the audience you want to reach, and you might say, 'let me just target the audience, and the demographics, and socio-economic effort, as opposed to keywords,' and let that drive your decision.”

Medhi also noted that an API will be available as well. This will no doubt be developed with powerhouse search advertisers and agencies in mind.

As my Six Flags style transportation home finally came to a halt at the end of a very long runway, I had a few moments to reflect back on my reality check in life and my search dreams. From the outside, it looks like the tools of sophisticated search providers will be focused on integration going forward, tasks that traditional online agencies (I can’t believe I just used the words “traditional” and “online” together) will be able to accomplish most efficiently.

Focused integration development strategies will force the ultimate question for specialized search firms. Will they be needed at all?

Next Week: For whom the search bell tolls

Additional resources:

MSN’s Press Release

iMedia's coverage of the new MSN Search

Search THIS: Why Search Is Slowing

Search THIS: Looking For A Break

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.

Meet Kevin Ryan at the Kelsey Group’s Drilling Down, The Online/ Offline Opportunity April 18 - 20, 2005 and Ad:Tech San Francisco April 25-27, 2005