MSN announced a redesign for its MSN Search service last week, a cosmetic change that helps the service comply with U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommendations about labeling paid placement results.
The change, being implemented July 1, won't coincide with the launch of MSN's own search technology. A crawler-based MSN search engine has been in development since last year, but there's no announced launch date.
Instead, the redesigned MSN Search site to be unveiled this summer will continue to be powered by Yahoo, as it is now.
Fixing Featured Sites
MSN Search has long had a "Featured Sites" area at the top of its search results page that contains a mix of editorial picks, promotion of MSN's own content, and paid ads from MSN advertisers. These ads potentially put MSN at odds with FTC recommendations.
The recommendations, issued in 2002, call for any guaranteed placement listings to be separated from other listings and to be clearly labeled with language indicating the listings are sold. The FTC particularly dislikes ambiguous headings, such as "Featured," and favors more descriptive ones such as "Sponsored."
MSN Search has long had a "Sponsored Sites" area. Paid listings appear here through its partnership with Overture. After the July 1 change, the Featured Sites area will be removed and any paid listings, whether sold directly by MSN or purchased through Overture, will appear in the Sponsored Sites area.
There will be two Sponsored Sites areas. One's a box at the top of the search page, giving ads in-line placement. Other ads will run along the right side of the screen, Google style, in what we call "sidebar" placement and what MSN refers to as the "right rail." In both cases, a "Sponsored Sites" heading is clearly displayed.
MSN has long sold its own ads directly to advertisers. This Featured Sites program will continue to be offered. Up to three advertisers can appear in the more prominent in-line sponsored search box. If all spaces aren't sold by MSN, Overture listings will fill the box. Overture listings also appear in the sidebar boxes.
The Featured Sites area isn't quite dead. In some cases, a new "Editorial Featured Site" link will appear between MSN's sponsored results and its main results. The wording's problematic. MSN says this link may lead to an MSN service or partner. Should payment be involved, this would run afoul of the FTC recommendations. MSN says it's still working through details of how this link will appear.
Changes Based on Testing
MSN isn't pitching the change as something done to please the FTC. Instead, the service cites recent testing and feedback from searchers and advertisers as reasons for the search page changes.
"The results showed consumers were clicking more often on links, spending more often on MSN Search, and our query base was increasing," said MSN Product Manager Karen Redetzki about searcher reaction.
As for advertisers, Redetzki said they're happy the changes may help MSN broaden its reach and attract more clicks to their ads. Advertisers in MSN's own advertising program are said to be pleased the change made them appear more prominent.
Those who've recently visited MSN's beta search site won't be shocked by the change. MSN says it's tested various different looks there over the past weeks. What I've seen and what's still up now, looks identical to what MSN proposes for July.
Main Results Continue From Yahoo
The main listings on MSN Search's results page, those under the "Web Pages" heading, are from Yahoo. These listings combine pages found by Yahoo's crawling of the Web and content obtained via Yahoo's content acquisition program, some of which involves paid inclusion.
After the July change, main listings at MSN will continue to come from Yahoo but will no longer have a "Web Pages" tag.
At some point in the future, MSN expects to replace this data with data found by its own crawler. That's likely to happen toward the end of this year.
"We've been telling people, 'Later this year, look for something from MSN Search,'" said Redetzki.
Debating Paid Inclusion Internally
If MSN is cleaning things up in terms of paid placement, why isn't it doing more to disclose paid inclusion?
MSN is already in compliance with FTC recommendations. As long as paid inclusion doesn't provide a ranking boost, which MSN supplier Yahoo says is the case, paid inclusion need only be disclosed on a search engine's help pages.
MSN currently does this through an about link next to the Web Pages heading on the results page. It leads to this explanation:Within Web Page results, there may be links where the Web site owners have paid for either expedited review of their site or paid for clicks to their site. These sites are ranked using the normal algorithm applied to all links within each section, with no change in rank due to payment.
Although it may be in compliance, MSN is weighing paid-inclusion options. Redetzki said the service is pondering dropping paid inclusion listings entirely, possibly segregating paid inclusion results, perhaps labeling them if they remain mixed among unpaid results. Maintaining the status quo is also an option.
"We are debating it right now," Redetzki said. "We're looking at a test we just ran and looking at the results and trying to determine the relevancy story."
When will a decision be made? Potentially, it could coincide with the July 1 rollout of MSN's redesign, Redetzki said. That's no guarantee a decision will be made by that date. It could happen sooner... or later.
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Danny Sullivan left Search Engine Watch as of Dec. 1, 2006.
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