Search Wars Intensify

At the MSN Strategic Account Summit in Redmond, WA, last week, I had the opportunity to witness the official launch of adCenter. For some time, I’ve had the privilege of being involved in MSN’s plans, first as an SEM (define) expert invited to provide early feedback and later as a participant in the beta U.S. launch.

AdCenter PPC (define) listings are now powering the sponsored portions of SERPs (define) on 100 percent of MSN traffic, replacing Yahoo Search (formerly Overture) listings from a percentage of the searches. Google also released new products this week including Google Desktop 4, Google Gadgets and Google Co-op in an attempt to keep users engaged with the Google brand as much as possible.

Not to be outdone, Yahoo chose this week to announce upcoming changes to its PPC search and advertising systems, even though these changes are not slated to happen until the fall of 2006.

The search engines will continue to duke it out with improved features for advertisers and searchers. Yet, searchers and surfers vote every day by deciding where to search and which content to read. The search wars among the portals are really fought on three fronts: relevance, scale (amount of search inventory available), and stickiness (ability to gain loyalty to improve share of search query volume).


RustySearch and Intralinks both released relevance studies. According to the studies, search result relevance in Google, Yahoo, and MSN is very close. Google relevancy may have suffered over time due to being the primary target of SEO (define) spammers, though, and Intralinks puts MSN in the lead.

Most people I ask have a perception that the engine they use is most relevant, and that’s a testament to each engine’s brand. If I get the time, I’d love to do a double-blind study where the data feeds for search queries are randomly assigned an engine and a SERP interface. Then we could determine whether differences in perceived relevance were coming from the SERP layout or from results’ true relevance. This experiment could isolate whether searchers automatically rank a result as better if it looks as if came from Google. That would be a good project for my summer interns….

Now that MSN has fully launched adCenter and advertisers can sign up, I expect its paid results’ relevance to improve over time. Advertisers in a new marketplace without many bidders can afford to be lazy and use broad match; once things get competitive, they’ll be forced to refine the ads to be as relevant as possible. That means properly targeting the long tail.

Given that relevance in the general SERP isn’t likely to vary dramatically among engines, future perceptions of relevance may come from personalization. In this area, Microsoft has come up with a unique solution: search macros (I hope Microsoft changes this name, because general users will run from anything with the word “macro” in it. How about SPIB, for Stored Personalized Information Bot?). Search macros let users save narrowed search parameters in a tab so the user can influence document priorities or relevance from sites containing certain keywords.

This preformatted narrowing of the field could be a killer app, if consumers decide to use it. It will, of course, also improve ad relevance because the ad can be served based on not just the keyword used but also all the modifier information stored in the macro. Google and A9 (which now uses Windows Live) are also experimenting with personalization that kicks in automatically or is triggered by searcher request.


ComScore puts MSN in third place at 13.2 percent of searches, with Yahoo at 28.0 percent and Google at 42.7 percent. Nielsen//NetRatings has a similar proportion with Google at 49 percent, Yahoo at 22 percent, and MSN at 11 percent. Google’s continued lead may be due partially to the fact power searchers (those who do a lot of daily searching) tend to prefer Google. Power searchers also often have the Google toolbar installed, putting search at their fingertips.

As expected, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, presented his view of a future ecosystem powered by adCenter. Ballmer described the MSN/Microsoft-powered ecosystem as a way of connecting consumers and advertisers with relevant content across the entire Microsoft media network.


The key to long-term scale and share of search traffic is stickiness. Coke and Pepsi fight to develop a brand preference in switchers, those who are indifferent or have only a slight preference for either cola. By making their user base stickier, the engines have an opportunity to gain higher shares of impromptu searches. MSN’s strategies include the best of Google and Yahoo strategies. Tools and toolbars will be highly powerful, but MSN also wants users to hang out, reading content that MSN owns or has licensed.

Constant exposure to Microsoft or MSN branding and ubiquity of the search box may stimulate some searches to switch. Once Windows Live launches out of beta and there are sufficient PPC advertisers in the MSN system, there will be a push to stimulate further trials of MSN’s Live. At that point, we’ll see if all the new features and improved relevance result in user preference changes.

Clearly, this year will hold additional announcements from all the search engines as they fight for search query volume and advertiser dollars. The clear winners here are searchers, who get for free features, functions, and data that were once only available to paying customers, supported by your advertising dollars. It’s good to know your ad dollars don’t just line the search engine coffers but are reinvested in improving the state of search, because that means better targeting and higher quality clicks in the future.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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Screenshot shows a Google search for outdoor grills, the shopping ads shows images with “in store” showing the product is available nearby.