All Ads At MSN Search? How First Impressions Count

I've read a number of popular press accounts over the past week trying to assess how well the new MSN Search measures up against the other major search engines. The difficulty with these or any accounts is that, as I've written before, unless you conduct a battery of tests, coming up with a meaningful relevancy assessment isn't each. Is MSN a certain percentage better or worse than Google? No one knows.

The Chicago Tribune review, Search engine surge a boon, but it's ads nauseam from MSN, provides an example of this. It takes looks at MSN Search, conducts a query for "pearl harbor" and comes away unimpressed, finding things too commercial:

Much more than Yahoo and Google, MSN's search results are centered on commercial sites and people with things to sell rather than useful and relevant information.

Is it true, even for this single query? I thought it would be fun to do a breakdown and find out. Below are all the unpaid listings on Google, titles only, in the order shown. I'm including the three product search results that also show up at the top of the Google home page. I'm also showing the full information displayed to the searcher, though the exact layout is obviously different.

Google:

  • Remember Pearl Harbor - $18.74 - dvdplanet
  • Pearl Harbor (History Channel) - $22.99 - pcmall.com
  • Pearl Harbor (History Channel) - $22.99 - MacMall
  • National Geographic: Remembering Pearl Harbor--history, maps Experience the Pearl Harbor attack: virtual war maps, survivors' personal stories, rare photographs, time lines, and more from National Geographic. ... www.nationalgeographic.com/pearlharbor/ - 24k - Cached - Similar pages
  • Pearl Harbor Remembered main menu Pearl Harbor Memorial information. Map of Pearl Harbor. A brief overview of the attack. ... Additional source of information about Pearl Harbor. ... my.execpc.com/~dschaaf/mainmenu.html - 4k - Cached - Similar pages
  • Pearl Harbor Raid, 7 December 1941 This page features a historical overview and special image selection on the Pearl Harbor raid by the Japanese, 7 December 1941. ... www.history.navy.mil/photos/ events/wwii-pac/pearlhbr/pearlhbr.htm - 21k - Cached - Similar pages
  • Pearl Harbor Attack: Index of Action Reports Index to Action Reports and other special reports from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941. ... The Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941. ... www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq66-1.htm - 13k - Cached - Similar pages [ More results from www.history.navy.mil ]
  • Touchstone Pictures' "Pearl Harbor" - Official Web Site From producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay comes Touchstone Pictures'/Jerry Bruckheimer Films' Pearl Harbor, an epic saga of love and war. ... video.go.com/pearlharbor/ - 12k - Cached - Similar pages
  • Pearl Harbor (2001) Pearl Harbor - Cast, Crew, Reviews, Plot Summary, Comments, Discussion, Taglines, Trailers, Posters, Photos, Showtimes, Link to Official Site, Fan Sites. ... www.imdb.com/title/tt0213149/ - 51k - Feb 5, 2005 - Cached - Similar pages
  • USS Arizona Memorial (National Park Service) Oil droplets bubble to the surface of Pearl Harbor above the USS Arizona, creating a vivid link to the past. On a quiet Sunday morning ... www.nps.gov/usar/ - 21k - Feb 5, 2005 - Cached - Similar pages
  • Attack At Pearl Harbor, 1941 ... Attack At Pearl Harbor, 1941. Printer Friendly Version >>>. The surprise was complete. ... Homer N. Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal (1968). ... www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/pearl.htm - 27k - Feb 5, 2005 - Cached - Similar pages
  • EyeWitness to History EyeWitness. has a new location: eyewitnesstohistory.com. You will transferred to our new site in a few seconds. Please bookmark the ... www.ibiscom.com/pearl.htm - 1k - Feb 6, 2005 - Cached - Similar pages
  • Pearl Harbor - Mother of All Conspiracies The world's best webapge on the Pearl Harbor conspiracy and how Roosevelt committed treason to get America into World War II by encouraging a Japanese attack. ... www.geocities.com/Pentagon/6315/pearl.html - 65k - Cached - Similar pages

Now here's what was on MSN Search for unpaid listings:

  • Attack At Pearl Harbor, 1941 ... Pearl Harbor: The Day of Infamy - An Illustrated History by Dan van der Vat Day of Infamy by Walter Lord Attack At Pearl Harbor, 1941 Printer Friendly Version >>> T he surprise was complete. The ... o www.ibiscom.com/pearl.htm o Cached page o 2/4/2005 *
  • Pearl Harbor.com Guide to Pearl Harbor Hawaii ... Guide to USS Arizona Memorial, USS Bowfin Memorial and USS Missouri Memorial. A Pearl Harbor.com Exclusive... by George E. Elliott Jr. . Edited by David J. Castello Japanese warplanes rev up ... o www.pearl-harbor.com o Cached page o 2/5/2005
  • National Geographic: Remembering Pearl Harbor--history, maps ... and review recommended resources. Register for Nationalgeographic.com E-Mail Newsletters Pearl Harbor, a Touchstone Pictures film starring Ben Affleck, opens May 25, 2001. Visit the official movie ... o plasma.nationalgeographic.com/pearlharbor o Cached page
  • Pearl Harbor (2001) ... from New York City to Italy were enlisted to produce period shoes in sizes 10 and 11. (more) PEARL HARBOR Memorabilia Books All Products User Comments: 10 out of 13 people found the following comment ... o us.imdb.com/Title?0213149 o Cached page o 2/7/2005
  • Battleship Missouri Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Official home of the Battleship Missouri Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Battleship Missouri (BB-63) Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii - Official Site. Tickets and Reservations How to Get Here Read ... o www.ussmissouri.com o Cached page o 2/6/2005 * DVDs about Pearl Harbor from Pearl Harbor.org
  • DVDs about Pearl Harbor from Pearl Harbor.org Home History Speeches Vintage Videos Photos Ships Forum ... o www.pearlharbor.org/center-dvd-pearl-harbor.asp o Cached page o 2/7/2005
  • Pearl Harbor Raid, 7 December 1941 ... to World peace. This page features a historical overview and special image selection on the Pearl Harbor raid, chosen from the more comprehensive coverage featured in the following pages, and those ... o www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/wwii-pac/pearlhbr/pearlhbr.htm o Cached page o 2/6/2005
  • Hawaii Activities - Oahu Activities - Oahu Surf - Oahu Tours - Hawaii ... Bring your kids and see the real Polynesia. AlohaTopTen.com - Enjoy the history and beauty of Pearl Harbor, fabulous luaus, evening shows, island tours or a sunset dinner cruise as the lights of ... o www.hawaii.com/visit/oahu/activities/index.php o Cached page o 2/5/2005
  • Amazon.com: DVD: Pearl Harbor (2001) ... Dolby Digital 5.1), English, French (Dolby Digital 5.1) Journey to the Screen: The Making of Pearl Harbor History Channel show "Unsung Heroes" Faith Hill's music video "There You'll Be" DVD-ROM ... o www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00003CXTG?v=glance o Cached page o 2/6/2005

OK, what have we got that's the same? In this comparison, I'll also annotate a summary from my perspective on the pages shown.

  • National Geographic: Remembering Pearl Harbor--history, maps: From National Geographic, what looks to be a good collection of material you'd like to see in the top results. Both Google and MSN list the exact same page, though MSN picks up the alternative address of plasma.nationalgeographic.com/pearlharbor.
  • Pearl Harbor (2001): Pearl Harbor was also, of course, a Hollywood blockbuster. This is a page from the Internet Movie Database on the file. Again, MSN has a slightly different URL than what Google lists, but they both lead to the same exact page.
     
  • Attack At Pearl Harbor, 1941: What looks to be a good page with some eyewitness accounts of the bombing. Google actually lists this same page twice, both the current address and a page that redirects to the new location. MSN lists the page once, the redirection address that leads to the current page.
  • Pearl Harbor Raid, 7 December 1941: Leads to a section at the US Naval Historical Center, which would appear to be a good choice. Google also lists a second page from this same web site -- different content, but still from the same web site.

What's unique at Google?

  • USS Arizona Memorial (National Park Service): Official web site for the USS Arizona memorial.
     
  • Touchstone Pictures' "Pearl Harbor" - Official Web Site: Official movie web site of the film Pearl Harbor.
     
  • Pearl Harbor Remembered main menu: What looks to be a hobbyist web site about the raid. The info may be good; it's just the look and feel is not that of a professionally produced site.
     
  • Pearl Harbor - Mother of All Conspiracies: What looks to be a hobbyist site presenting an alternative view of the Pearl Harbor attack.

What's unique at MSN?

  • Battleship Missouri Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii: Official web site for the USS Missouri memorial in Pearl Harbor.
     
  • Amazon.com: DVD: Pearl Harbor (2001): By the movie, from Amazon.
     
  • DVDs about Pearl Harbor from Pearl Harbor.org: What looks to be a page from a hobbyist web site about Pearl Harbor. This page is a list of related DVDs for sale, and the site feels a bit like it's oriented toward attracting people to sell products.
     
  • Hawaii Activities - Oahu Activities - Oahu Surf - Oahu Tours - Hawaii: Page from a tourist site on visiting Hawaii, and not a very good one about visiting Pearl Harbor, at that.
     
  • Pearl Harbor.com Guide to Pearl Harbor Hawaii: What looks to be a hobbyist guide to visiting memorials to the battle. POSTSCRIPT: Phil Ringnalda correctly points out than rather being a hobbyist site, this instead appears to be a site that may have lifted text from a National Parks Service site and is designed to drive traffic for hotel reservations across the US.
     

So looking back on the unique items, I'd like all Google's choices. At MSN, the first one is good, but I like Google's choices better. The last four are more iffy. So verdict on the Trib's single query view? Again, never base overall conclusions on a single query, but...

MSN does feel more commercially oriented looking at this query and others I've personally seen. But that's more to me a sign it's a newer search engine that's still needs to evolve picking out the good stuff from things that might simply be designed to please a search engine's ranking algorithm.

The fact the technology seems to need more resistance to old-style on-the-page search ranking tactics is something that's come up on our forum and others I've read. SEO for MSN on our forums looks at this more.

Layout can have an impact. The Chicago Tribune reported seeing ads on Google and Yahoo for the query, just like those on MSN. But height and display of the first ads on MSN were larger than at the other two -- and thus fed to the impression that it's like all ads, all the time, at MSN.

I wrote about this before in my Microsoft Blogger Scoble Sticks With Google -- Though MSN Deserves A Break -- even getting out my ruler to measure ad height. Even if the ads are fewer, the look-and-feel will have a big impact on those viewing the site.

Even in the editorial results, you can see this reflected. Remember those Google results? Google also had these three additional results that came out of Froogle, which were integrated into the home page through a OneBox display:

  • Remember Pearl Harbor - $18.74 - dvdplanet
  • Pearl Harbor (History Channel) - $22.99 - pcmall.com
  • Pearl Harbor (History Channel) - $22.99 - MacMall

Add those in, and Google results might feel a little more commercial than the Tribune original came away with. But those results looked a bit different from the "regular" results and so quite likely were completely ignored by the Tribune reviewer. That's good news for those searchers who really didn't want to get product information in this query. It's bad news for those who might.

That also points out the importance of search subjectivity. This reviewer probably wasn't thinking of Pearl Harbor in terms of a commercial perspective. But if you had wanted to purchase the movie or documentaries about the attack, your view of the results might similarly change.