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MSN Expands Overture Ads

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MSN Search has rolled out a new format for showing paid listings, a change it hopes will allow it to carry more sponsored results while still keeping its overall relevancy high.

MSN receives paid listings from Overture, which have been historically shown in the "Sponsored Sites" section of its search results. However, unlike some other Overture partners, MSN Search has been selective about the listings it would carry.

MSN never explained exactly how it filtered the paid listings it would accept, but many observed that ads for low-volume queries were often those that failed to appear.

Now MSN is embracing all the ads Overture has to offer. This means that Overture advertisers should no longer find it guesswork about whether they will appear at MSN. If they're in the top listings for a query at Overture, then they should be showing up for the same query in the Sponsored Sites areas of MSN Search's results.

"Areas" is the operative word in all this. MSN Search now has two separate areas labeled Sponsored Sites that contain Overture listings, rather than the single section it had before.

Generally, you'll still find the traditional implementation appears, a section of results in the main column of the search results called Sponsored Sites that contains three paid listings from Overture. However, along the right-hand side of the screen is a new box that's also called Sponsored Sites, which contains five additional listings from Overture.

The new box isn't just a way to get more paid listings on the page. MSN is also using the box as an area where it may demote paid listings that don't perform well when they appear in the traditional main column setting.

In other words, let's say for a search on "used cars," MSN Search shows three paid listings in the traditional area. One of these listings fails to attracts clicks in the percentage that typically would be expected for a listing in that position. For its failure to perform, the listing might be "demoted" into the Sponsored Sites box. Meanwhile, a listing from the Sponsored Sites box would be promoted into the main column area.

The theory is that by doing this, MSN will help ensure the relevancy of the paid listings it carries. User clicks should help ensure that the most relevant paid listings appear in the important main column. It's somewhat akin to the system that Google uses, where a high clickthrough on an ad can help ensure it will maintain a prominent placement.

Let's go back and take another look, this time examining specific positions at Overture and MSN Search. We'll use "used cars" again as an example.

Currently, that search at MSN Search brings back those who are listed 1 through 3 at Overture into the main column Sponsored Sites area. Then, those at Overture in positions 4 through 8 show up in the Sponsored Sites box.

Now note what happens if you go to the second page of results. In this case, those at Overture in positions 4 through 6 are inserted into the main column Sponsored Sites area, while the Sponsored Sites box gets Overture positions 7 through 11.

The thought is that since the first three listings from Overture apparently failed to satisfy those viewing the first page, the next three results from Overture get a second chance to please, this time with the advantage of being promoted from sidebar status to the main column.

Remember, all this assumes that no relevancy promotion and demotion has taken place. In time, you'll no doubt begin to see this kick in. That means you might find the main column containing listings 2, 4 and 5 from Overture, for example, while the sidebar box might have listings 1, 3, 6, 7 and 8 -- or a variety of other combinations.

Also be aware that in some cases, Overture results will only appear in the sidebar box. This seem to happen for popular search topics where MSN has a number of its own paid "Featured Sites" listings. For example, notice how Overture listings get sidebar-only placement for things like "cars," "dvds," "books" and "movies."

Should you go for Features Sites listings, as a way to always have a main column presence? Sure -- but be aware that they are expensive, currently a $75,000 minimum annual buy. More information on them can be found at the MSN site.

By the way, while the changes are new to MSN in the US, they were originally tested over the past month or so at MSN's sites in the UK and France. You can expect to see the format roll out to other MSN editions that carry paid listings, as well.


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