MSN Plots Search Moves

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After its executives roundly admitted it has fallen behind search engines like Google, Microsoft has begun to reveal coming search changes to make up lost ground.


The Redmond, WA, tech giant's MSN portal plans to revamp its search results page to better demarcate which listings are from advertisers. The changes, to take effect July 1, will keep paid listings from Yahoo's Overture Services along the right side, while rechristening its "featured sites" as "sponsored sites." Those three listings are to be sold to advertisers by MSN but might include Overture listings for some searches.


"What we've found is that when we more clearly defined the paid links, consumers were spending more time on MSN, were more satisfied with the results they get and were more pleased with MSN," said Karen Redetzki, a product manager at MSN.


MSN's search results page currently includes four "featured sites" at the top that mix advertiser listings with those chosen by MSN editors. The move to change it to "sponsored sites" and better demarcate it as advertising follows a recommendation by the Federal Trade Commission in 2002 that paid search listings should be clearly labeled.


The realigned page also will eliminate a layer of Overture listings in the main search results, moving up its algorithmic search results supplied by Yahoo.


Redetzki stressed the changes were part of MSN's philosophy that clearly identifying which links are paid is better for searchers and advertisers. She said MSN is debating the merits of paid inclusion.


Yahoo last month launched Site Match, which lets advertisers pay to have their Web sites included in Yahoo's search index. Relevancy determines position, but critics say that charging each time a user clicks on a paid-inclusion listing puts the search index's credibility at risk.


Microsoft continues to develop its own algorithmic search engine, Redetzki said, but she did not expect it to be ready until the latter part of the year. Meanwhile, MSN is devising search advancements it thinks will put it ahead of Google and Yahoo.


It has plenty of ground to make up. According to comScore Media Metrix, MSN draws about 15 percent of all Internet searches, well behind Google's 35 percent and Yahoo's 26 percent.


"They believe search is in its infancy," said Nate Elliott, a Jupiter Research analyst, "and the fact is this game is far from over, and there's room for plenty of winners."


Redetzki touted MSN Answerbot, a search application that will return information to users' natural-language queries. As an example, Redetzki said a searcher typing in, "What is the highest mountain in Washington," would get "Mt. Rainier."


Google, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves have made strides along this front in recent years. Google returns information to queries for things such as weather, math problems, flight information and package shipping. Yahoo has begun adding these features, including yesterday travel-related shortcuts to find a city's weather, traffic, flight information and hotel options.


A leader in this regard has been Ask Jeeves' Smart Answers, which also return information to queries like state and country capitals. Though Ask Jeeves cannot answer the Mount Rainier question, it can answer the question of the highest mountain in the world: Mount Everest.


"This is about going well beyond scratching the surface," Redetzki said. She expects Answerbot is about three years from its debut.


Closer on the horizon, she said MSN would roll out a buffed-up MSN Newsbot this year that will learn from previous activity to suggest news links. It also will release a similar tool for Web logs, called MSN Blogbot.


Despite last week's admission by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer that the company underestimated the potential of search, Redetzki said MSN did not worry about Google and Yahoo getting too far ahead in the market.


"Our focus is not the competition," she said. "Our focus is the consumer. This is all about us making sure what we put out for consumers will answer their questions, period."


Brian Morrissey covers search marketing for DM News.com. To keep up with the latest search marketing news subscribe to our free e-mail weekly newsletter Search Engine Marketing by visiting http://www.dmnews.com/cgi-bin/newslettersub.cgi .


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