MSN Demarcates Paid, Organic Search; Google Tweaks AdSense

  |  March 22, 2004   |  Comments

The two search players make changes, with MSN differentiating paid listings from organic search results and Google beefing up AdSense.

A whole lot of shakin' is going on in the search world. MSN unveiled plans to clearly distinguish paid ads from organic search results as of July 1 and Google trumpeted enhancements to AdSense making it easier for publishers to measure ad performance.

MSN decided to make its changes based on the results of a series of consumer tests on user satisfaction and search relevancy with various user interfaces, according to Karen Redetzki, product manager for MSN.

"They were really just trying to clarify some of the ambiguity within their featured listings area," said Kevin Lee of, referring to the search results listings. "Currently there is a combination of paid and unpaid links." The interface, set to debut July 1, will present paid listings in boxes with a yellow background positioned at the top and right-hand side of the page, headed "Sponsored sites." Previously, paid links appeared on the right, but without a colored background, and were also mixed into the main body, sometimes appearing among the featured sites, as Lee noted.

The number of paid links at the top will drop from four to three. MSN staff will sell these top listings, though if not enough are sold, one listing provided by Overture may appear. The five ads on the right-hand side will continue to be provided by Overture, MSN's third-party partner.

Though MSN has been generating its own listings for some time, the prominent placement is something new.

"Anybody spending significant amounts of money on Google and Overture should at least check to see what levels of inventory are available on MSN. The fact that they're going to emphasize them with new vigor means clickthrough might be even higher," Lee said.

In another change to the MSN search results page, algorithmic search results will now appear "above the fold," e.g. in the area of the screen immediately seen without needing to scroll down. The algorithmic search is powered by Inktomi, and will feature paid inclusion, a system by which marketers pay to be included in the index, but they aren't guaranteed any particular ranking.

The move puts MSN "completely in compliance" with the Federal Trade Commission's recommendations on separating and labeling sponsored search results, said Danny Sullivan, editor of

"It may make a few consumers perhaps skip over the ads, so potentially advertisers might not like it," said Sullivan. "But it's a great thing overall, for the long term.

"That's because many consumers won't care where the most relevant link is and still look at the ads, just as they do at Google. But by making things crystal-clear, MSN ensures that it builds consumer trust," Sullivan said.

Meanwhile, Google has been hard at work tweaking its contextual advertising product, AdSense. On Friday, the product's first anniversary, the company introduced a number of new tools and features.

The major enhancement is a new reporting feature that measures the performance of different groups of pages, ad formats, colors and ad placements using categories called "channels." An example: a publisher could compare the results on a given set of pages, such as motorcycles, to that of car pages, by assigning each group to a specific channel and comparing the results.

In addition to this change, publishers can now download reports in CSV format, and can place ads in frames through specialized code. AdSense is also now available to publishers in Italy.

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Janis Mara

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