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MSN Search Testing Paid Listings with a Twist

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MSN Search is now including paid listings from Overture in some search results, but with a "twist" that makes these paid listings more useful than those served by other major search engines and portals, according to Bill Bliss, general manager of MSN Search at Microsoft Corp.

"We've always resisted putting Overture results on the main page in the same way that some of the other portals have done it because they didn't always give useful results for what the user was looking for," said Bliss.

The case against paid listings, of course, is that they're essentially advertisements, and only those from advertisers making top bids for placement are displayed at most major portal sites. For searchers looking for information, rather than products or services, paid listings often disappoint.

But not always. "There are actually a lot of cases where Overture produces really useful and relevant results," said Bliss.

The trick is to find those specific cases where a blend of paid listings and results ranked according to relevance provide the best overall mix for the searcher. MSN Search, working closely with Overture, has identified a number of search terms where Overture results complement MSN's existing search result set.

For queries using these terms, three Overture-served results appear in a separate section labeled "sponsored sites" directly below the "featured sites" listings on a result page. They're also prefaced with bullets, rather than numbers, further differentiating them from standard search results.

MSN deserves credit for labeling the results straightforwardly as "sponsored sites" (though they could have gone further and simply called them advertising). Next to the sponsored sites heading is an "About" link that discloses the nature of the results and where they come from.

MSN is treating this selective, hybrid approach to blending paid placement with computed relevance links as an experiment. "One of the things we're interested in is do they indeed enhance results," said Bliss. While MSN and Overture have tested the approach internally, it won't be clear whether the approach actually works without a large scale tryout.

What kinds of queries trigger blended results? MSN's Bliss declined to provide specific examples, or to indicate the precise number of search terms involved, saying the numbers would likely change over time.

"We looked for ones that generally speaking had an evergreen intent. Other than by trying it there will be no way to know whether Overture results will appear," said Bliss. He noted that queries where a searcher was likely looking for both information and products or services were likely candidates -- travel or industry related terms, for example.

The program is in beta, but a small percentage of searches on the current MSN Search site return results with the new sponsored listings. You can also see how they work by searching directly from the MSN Search Beta site.

It's an interesting approach, and one that seems to have promise for unifying the best of both worlds of paid placement and algorithmically calculated relevant results.

MSN is working on a number of improvements to MSN search that are scheduled to be officially rolled out in early January. Danny Sullivan will take a detailed look at the changes in an upcoming issue of the Search Engine Report.

MSN Search Beta
http://beta.search.msn.com

Webmaster World - MSN Beta Discussion
http://www.webmasterworld.com/forum17/731.htm

Two popular forums for the webmaster/SEO community, discussing the beta version of MSN Search. Note that MSN's beta activities have been discovered by this community despite the lack of any formal announcement.

How MSN Search Works
http://www.searchenginewatch.com/subscribers/msnsearch.html

Details of how MSN Search operates, available to Search Engine Watch members.

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