Microsoft adCenter Could Win the Search Battle

Some time ago, I wrote a column calling out Microsoft for customer service in its search practices. I know that the folks at Microsoft “heard my plea” because they contacted me, and we came to an understanding.

I can honestly say since that article, the customer service I have received from Microsoft has been better than what I have received from both Google and Yahoo!. I’m sure the fact that I wrote the column had something to do with it, but I’ve talked to others who have seen improved customer service as well. This is a positive trend that I personally hope continues.

Microsoft adCenter Performance

Ok, now that we’ve got some of the customer service bugs out, let’s talk about the Microsoft product and how it’s performing.

I will be the first to say that Microsoft searchers convert – to a point. It doesn’t matter how much I spend on Google or Yahoo! as far as conversions are concerned, but it seems I can only spend a small percentage of my budget in adCenter before the conversions fall off considerably. However, before that point, the conversions are much higher than the other engines. To me, this indicates that core MSN users are great customers; but once you get out of that core customer comfort zone, the traffic is crap.

Microsoft Ad Champs Conference

I just finished listening to Dave Naylor and Mikkel deMib Svendsen’s latest “Strike Point” show on Webmaster Radio where Dave is discussing what he saw at the recent invitation-only Microsoft Ad Champs Conference (to which I wasn’t invited, but that’s a topic for another column entitled, “My Bruised Ego”). Naylor, whose opinion I respect even though we don’t know each other, said that what he saw led him to believe that Microsoft could win the search battle.

Naylor mentioned the Ad Excellence Certification Program (in which my agency participated in the beta) as one of the initiatives. I agree this is a great program. I also think Microsoft has some really cool features that Naylor couldn’t talk about because of the NDA he signed at the conference.

My question, however, is: Will the new features attract more of those “awesome” core customers MSN has, or will it merely serve as a neat-o factor for search nerds, and a passing novelty for some MSN searchers, failing to increase the core audience? Market share increase is great – but what I want is quality over quantity. If Microsoft can get its conversion rate to scale, it will blow Google, Yahoo! and Ask out of the water. The trick, as Gates and company have discovered, is scaling that audience.

Scaling the Audience

How does Microsoft scale its audience? I have a few ideas, all based solely on anecdotal evidence gathered over the last few days from hard-core Google users and a couple of Yahoo! users. I offer this advice free of charge, unless Microsoft would like to pay me.

  • Relevancy: It’s about relevancy, but not actual relevancy. Actually, just perception of relevancy. As for the Google users I spoke with, they all perceived Google’s relevancy for searches to be unsurpassed. Anyone who does any deep digging into relevancy issues with the search engines will find that natural relevancy varies widely on the semantics of the user and the category of the search. Most agree that relevancy within all of the major search engines is basically the same. Microsoft needs to communicate to the general public that its relevancy is as good as the other guys'. Fluffy television commercials with a guy in a butterfly suit won’t do it. Get to the heart of the matter and be direct.
  • Features: Features are a great way to get new users to try an engine. I loved the campaign that Ask.com ran a while back, talking about its tools. I thought this campaign had some legs and could generate a new user base. However, obviously, the folks at Ask thought this approach didn’t work and have moved on. I would encourage Microsoft to pick up where Ask left off and get new users on board with some really cool tools – perhaps with some integration into other Microsoft products, which brings me to my next point.
  • Assets: Microsoft needs to leverage its assets. I keep hearing about search integration into other apps, but I’m just not seeing it. How can I use search with Word? How about Excel? Am I just missing something – and if I am missing the point, how many others out there are missing it as well?
  • Tools: While it’s important to use tools, it's also important to keep it simple. Too much clutter will send folks to the land of Google (which by the way, is getting pretty cluttered up lately, itself). I like the Microsoft Live search interface a lot and use it. Others seem to like it as well.

Hopefully, in the near future, I’ll be able to say that Microsoft customers scale, and I want to put more money into the engine. Hey, the last column worked. Hopefully this one will as well.