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New LookIn July, New Search Engine Later, Says MSN

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A longer version of this article for Search Engine Watch members looks at Yahoo-powered MSN having different results than Yahoo itself, hiring efforts by MSN, issues of integrating MSN Search into the operating system and continued use of LookSmart data in a limited form by MSN
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MSN announced a redesign for its MSN Search service last week, a cosmetic change that helps the service comply with US Federal Trade Commission recommendations about labeling paid placement results.

The change being implemented on July 1 will not coincide with the launch of MSN's own search technology. A crawler-based MSN search engine has been in development since last year, but there remains no announced launch date for this.

Instead, the redesigned MSN Search site being unveiled in July will continue to be powered by Yahoo, as it currently is today.

Fixing Featured Sites

MSN Search has long had a "Featured Sites" area at the top of its search results page that contained a mixture of editorial picks, promotion of MSN's own content and paid ads from MSN advertisers. It is these ads that potentially put MSN in variance with FTC recommendations.

Issued in 2002, the FTC recommendations called for any listings where placement is guaranteed to be separated from other listings and be clearly labeled using language that indicates the listings are sold. In particular, the FTC disliked ambiguous headings such as "Featured" in favor of more descriptive ones such as "Sponsored."

MSN Search also has long had a "Sponsored Sites" area. Paid listings have appeared here through its partnership with Overture. After the July 1 change, the Featured Sites area will be removed and any paid listings -- whether sold directly by MSN or purchased through Overture -- will appear in the Sponsored Sites area.

In particular, there will be two Sponsored Sites areas. One is a box at the top of the search page, giving ads "inline" placement. The other ads will run along the right-hand side of the screen Google-style, in what Search Engine Watch calls "sidebar" placement and what MSN refers to as the "right rail." In both cases, a "Sponsored Sites" heading is clearly displayed.

MSN has long sold its own advertisements directly to advertisers, and this Featured Sites program will continue to be offered. Up to three advertisers in this program can appear in the more prominent inline sponsored search box. If all spaces aren't sold by MSN, then Overture listings will fill this box. Overture listings also appear in the sidebar boxes.

The Featured Sites area isn't quite dead. In some cases, a new "Editorial Featured Site" link will appear between MSN's sponsored results and its main results. The wording is problematic, since MSN says that this link may lead to an MSN service or partner. Should any payment be involved, this would still fall afoul of the FTC recommendations. MSN says it is still working through the details of how this link will appear.

Changes Based On Testing

MSN itself isn't pitching the change as something that was done to please the FTC. Instead, the service cites testing it has done recently and feedback received from both searchers and advertisers as reasons to clean up its search page.

"The results showed consumers were clicking more often on links, spending more often on MSN Search, and our query base was increasing," said MSN product manager Karen Redetzki, about searcher reaction.

As for advertisers, Redetzki said they were happy that the changes might help MSN broaden its reach and attract more clicks to their ads. Advertisers in MSN's own advertising program were said to be pleased that the change made them appear more prominent.

Key advertisers and other important MSN partners will hear first hand about the change today, as MSN's Strategic Account Summit begins for two days. The event gathers 400 of MSN's top advertisers and industry leaders. MSN briefed the press on its planned new look this week, so that when the details came out during the summit, there wouldn't be a big surprise.

Those who've visited MSN's search beta site recently wouldn't be shocked by the change. MSN says it has tested various different looks there over the past few weeks. But what I've seen, and what is still being shown now, looks identical to what MSN is proposing for July. That July look is illustrated below:

0403-msn

Main Results Continue From Yahoo

The main listings on MSN Search's results page -- those under the "Web Pages" heading -- currently come from Yahoo. These are mixture of pages found by Yahoo's crawling of the web and content obtained through Yahoo's content acquisition program, some of which involves paid inclusion.

After the July change, the main listings at MSN will continue to come from Yahoo. They simply will no longer have a "Web Pages" heading coming above them.

At some point in the future, MSN expects to replace this data with that found by its own crawler. As previously said, this won't happen in July. Instead, it's more likely to happen toward the end of the year.

"We've been telling people, later this year, look for something from MSN Search," said Redetzki.

Debating Paid Inclusion Internally

If MSN is cleaning things up in terms of paid placement, then why isn't it doing more in terms of paid inclusion disclosure?

Part of the answer is that MSN is already in compliance with FTC recommendations. As long as paid inclusion doesn't provide a ranking boost -- which MSN supplier Yahoo says is the case -- paid inclusion need only be disclosed via a search engine's help pages.

MSN currently does this through an About link that appears next to the Web Pages heading on the results page. This leads to an explanation that says:

Within Web Page results, there may be links where the Web site owners have paid for either expedited review of their site or paid for clicks to their site. These sites are ranked using the normal algorithm applied to all links within each section, with no change in rank due to payment.

While it may be in compliance, paid inclusion is currently being actively debated at MSN. Redetzki said the service is pondering dropping paid inclusion listings entirely, possibly segregating paid inclusion results, perhaps labeling them if they remain mixed among unpaid results as well as maintaining the status quo.

"We are debating it right now," Redetzki said. "We're looking at test we just ran and looking at the results and trying to determine the relevancy story."

When will a decision be made? Potentially, it could coincide with the July 1 rollout of MSN's redesign, Redetzki said. However, that's not a guarantee that a decision will be made by that date -- it could go longer or happen sooner.

A longer version of this article for Search Engine Watch members looks at Yahoo-powered MSN having different results than Yahoo itself, hiring efforts by MSN, issues of integrating MSN Search into the operating system and continued use of LookSmart data in a limited form by MSN
Click here to learn more about becoming a member

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