MSN Updates Search, Drops Paid Inclusion

  |  July 1, 2004   |  Comments

The portal giant updates its search service, dropping paid inclusion, separating natural and paid results and launching a new MSN Search homepage.

MSN updated its search service Thursday, launching a new MSN Search homepage, dropping paid inclusion and separating natural and paid results.

The redesign includes a new MSN Search homepage at http://search.msn.com with easy navigation to MSN services; a search results page that separates algorithmic results from paid results and eliminates paid inclusion; direct access to information sources such as online encyclopedia Encarta; and performance improvements.

MSN also released an initial technology test Thursday of its forthcoming algorithmic search engine to get feedback from webmasters and search enthusiasts. (The test is accessible at http://techpreview.search.msn.com/.) The company described Thursday's search service update as part of initial steps toward taking search "beyond today's basic Internet search services," of which the planned search engine is a vital element.

For now, Yahoo will continue to provide MSN's search technology, though its paid inclusion listings will be dropped "to ensure people clearly understand which results are advertisements," the company said.

The search results page now clearly differentiates algorithmic, or organic, search results from sponsored links. The number of sponsored links has also been reduced so that algorithmic answers appear prominently on the first page of every query result.

Any links paid for by advertisers will be displayed in shaded boxes that clearly identify them with a "Sponsored Sites" heading, enabling consumers to choose between algorithmic results and sponsored links. The change helps MSN comply with Federal Trade Commission labeling requirements.

The upgrade has increased the relevancy of "many search query results" by nearly 50 percent, according to Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft corporate vice president of MSN.

Users using the new design in beta testing spent 42 percent more minutes using the MSN Search service and queries per user increased by 36 percent, MSN said.

Though Yahoo's controversial paid inclusion listing will go for now, MSN will continue to evaluate the potential of paid inclusion to improve relevancy for consumers, the company said. Concerns have been voiced as to whether paid inclusion would affect results, with many opining that consumers should be notified more prominently about the paid inclusion.

MSN's move to drop paid inclusion could be seen as another black mark for the practice, which was dropped by Ask Jeeves in March. Ask Jeeves said paid inclusion impacted relevance and didn't pay off as expected.

"Looks like MSN has decided spiders do it better," said Kevin Lee, CEO of search engine optimization firm Did-It.com. "Google has the same philosophy. It's too easy for marketers to manipulate things just slightly in their favor as opposed to what Google would have preferred. Google has its own theories about what is relevant and what is not. It bases its relevance on the contents of the page. It does not want to give marketers the power to tweak the way the content is represented in the index."

Lee feels paid inclusion can be effective under certain circumstances, he said.

"As search engine marketers, we can curse the wind or adjust our sails," said Fredrick Marckini, CEO of search engine optimization firm iProspect. "Paid inclusion is a tremendous solution for companies with search engine-unfriendly Web sites. If the landscape changes, it will be necessary to explore other solutions as well."

Marckini said natural search engine optimization strategies would become a greater part of the mix now that MSN has abandoned paid inclusion.

"Yahoo is committed to CAP [its paid inclusion program] and will continue to work with content providers to evaluate ways to evolve and improve the program," said Stephanie Ichinose, a Yahoo spokeswoman. "We believe that trusted feeds provide significant quality benefits such as increasing freshness and relevancy of search results for users."

The improvements to MSN's search service also include services that help locate information without having to search through pages of Web links. The new home page has a drop-down menu next to the search box with direct access to in-depth information sources, including more than 50,000 articles and resources from the Encarta Reference Library 2004, and other industry resources. There's also a vertical news option in the drop-down menu and through MSN's Newsbot technology, which offers personalized news search across more than 4,000 news sources.

In addition to the changes to the search process, MSN's new homepage offers one-click access to MSN services, including MSN Hotmail and MSN Messenger. Other easy-access information includes weather, news, sports, entertainment, stock quotes, and My MSN personalized home page options.

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