MSN: Still Too Much Junk in the Trunk

It has been a while since I have taken a long and hard look at MSN. As I have made well known in the past, I still strongly believe that the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) community as well as the Internet as a whole would be much better off if there were several accurate search engines as opposed to just one. With that premise in mind I decided to revisit MSN to see if they have made any improvements in the results it returns for various search words. I’ll bet you can figure out the answer to that question by simply re-reading the title of this article.

I have been reading a lot of forum threads on this topic and there seems to be a great division among SEO experts. The first belief is that MSN is putting the control into the hands of the webmasters, and that this is a good thing. By making it clearer and easier to understand what the MSN engine will respond to, this actually enhances the users’ ability to find what they are looking for, because webmasters will actively modify their sites to go after the keywords they believe are the most appropriate for their site/business.

I belong to the second school of thought – which is that by allowing the results of the MSN engine to be so easily tampered with and optimized for, the engine itself is much more prone to spammy results. If you buy into that thought process, then the next logical assumption is that MSN will never catch Google, will always command a tiny fraction of the Internet’s searches, and whatever they do will be deemed irrelevant.

I Kick Butt on MSN!

What I find interesting is that people are still optimizing for MSN; they are actually proud and go so far as to brag when their results show up on page one. Two things come to mind: first, why would you even care, as we all know that MSN’s results are still very inaccurate and their reach is still minute compared to Google? Second, optimizing for MSN is akin to beating up your five year old niece and stealing her candy bar. It’s easy to do – the results are instant – and the candy bar tastes good. But after it’s all said and done, what do you really have, other than a crying niece and some extra fat around the midriff to show for your efforts?

Optimizing for MSN is very different from optimizing for Google, with both engines looking for vastly different things to determine ranking –- so unless you are running two different versions of your site, optimizing for MSN is pointless. Besides who is using MSN for search anyway?

I can tell you that across the Developer Shed network MSN equates to five percent of our traffic, that’s it. So until Microsoft creates a better mouse trap –- a MUCH better mouse trap — I do not anticipate that percentage of searches to increase any time in the near future. I suppose if I started to see a dramatic increase in MSN searches, to the point where it equated to 20 percent or more of my overall traffic, I would start looking into finding a happy medium to optimize for both Google and MSN. Until that point, I can’t see a good justification for all of that extra labor.

I think it is important to point out that the very same argument existed back in the Netscape/Internet Explorer days when optimizing your site for a particular browser. Back in the day webmasters really only concerned themselves with optimizing their sites for the Netscape browser because it had a stranglehold on the browser market – something like 90%. When Microsoft decided to make a run at the browser market, their first few attempts were futile. The browser was horrible, it rendered most sites horribly and earned its nickname “Internet Exploder.”

Of course we all know how this story turned out. Microsoft put a ton of money and a ton of muscle into making IE the dominant browser, and today IE controls over 80% of the browser market –- across the Developer Shed network, 85 percent of our visitors use IE. I point this out because a company that has the resources of a Microsoft can always make a run at any marketplace in the technology sector, with MSN being no exception.

Although I will admit that quite a bit of time has passed, with Microsoft chasing Google and MSN not being able to make any inroads at all, so one begins to wonder if anyone will catch Google. No one ever caught up with eBay, and that’s certainly not for a lack of trying. CNet attempted auctions, and so did Yahoo; both failed miserably. At some point when critical mass is reached and the company who holds the top of the mountain continues to innovate and lead the pack, it’s extremely difficult to dethrone them. Google could be such a company.

What could MSN do in order to improve its search and take a step towards catching Google? Well for starters it could get more involved with the SEO community as a whole. When Google started amassing users and traffic it shunned the SEO community like the Black Death. Whenever there seems to be an algorithm issue or simply a minor bug with the way Google reports results, the SEO community tends to be aware of it first –- many times even before Google is. But Google felt it needed to keep its division of church and state and wasn’t interested in feedback, bugs, or basically any information coming from the SEO community.

The thought process was that the SEO community was a necessary evil byproduct of Google’s dominance in the search sector, and that they did not want their scientists/engineers to be polluted by outside thoughts. However, as time progressed Google slowly started to come around and did a 180 on this issue. They slowly started becoming involved with the SEO community, even if it was just to get a heads up on bugs and other things not working properly.

I believe MSN could steal a page here out of Google’s book and even take it one step further by really pursuing feedback from SEO professionals. I am not saying that MSN should seek advice on specific ways and means of ranking a site, but more of the nuts and bolts of what should be important when trying to determine the value and relevance of a site in regards to a particular search being executed. I have been a party to several highly intelligent conversations in regards to what search engines in general should look at when determining the value and creditability of any given web site.

This seems to be a factor that all search engines could use some improvement on, especially MSN. For instance, take one of our sister web sites, www.devshed.com. The site consists of articles and tutorials for the web development community; thus in its concept, dev is short for developer and the shed represents tools. In other words, it’s about developer tools. So obviously we don’t sell sheds, we don’t discuss sheds on any of our sites and it’s clear if you spend 10 seconds on Dev Shed that we don’t sell sheds.

But if you type “shed” into either Google OR MSN take a guess where we show? Well not first but pretty darn high up –- and let me tell you, this isn’t a good thing. So if business ever goes south I know I can sell sheds and make a decent living, as we probably get five calls a day from people looking to buy a shed.

Discovering the contextual nature of any web site still seems to be a trick that no search engine has been able to master, and I suspect the first one that does will have a leg up on all of the other search engines. That is most likely an excellent starting point for MSN to attack hard, because making headway in that arena would certainly give it the traction it so desperately needs in order to compete effectively in the search engine field.

One thing that MSN is doing that I like is, at the bottom of each search you run, they ask you for feedback on that particular search. I have no idea if they read that stuff, but I hope they do, because at the end of the day, the search business is about people like you and me, and helping us find what we are looking for. It is not a business that can be run from the confines of a corporate infrastructure; I strongly believe it is critical to get a pulse on the Internet community as well as the SEO community as a whole and to really process the feedback that is received.

Just for kicks I went to MSN and typed in “MSN optimization.” A couple of our sites showed up at the top. However a few notches down were sites which had absolutely no content at all related to MSN optimization. Heck, one of the sites that ranked for MSN optimization had a page which said “this category does not yet contain any articles.” So what this site did was put up a place holder, which contained the page title and meta data “MSN optimization,” but the meat of the page itself basically had an “under construction” notice — and MSN ranked it fourth! These kinds of searches need to be flagged and dealt with. Until they are, MSN will always be considered a bottom feeder in the search industry.

So where does MSN go from here? Well for starters, it was recently announced that Yahoo and eBay have formed a pretty major partnership revolving around advertising and e-commerce with an eye to competing against Google. There is strength in numbers, so they say. But Microsoft, for the most part is still on an island by itself when it comes to search.

An obvious solution which Microsoft could certainly afford is an acquisition on a grand scale with either Yahoo or eBay, or a roll up of both. That buys market share, but in order to maintain it MSN will still require some major modifications to its search engine. My opinion is that at this stage of the game MSN will not be able to compete against Google in the search game without a major acquisition or two, and even then a very effective game plan would be needed to ensure another AOL/Netscape merger doesn’t take place. For those of you who don’t remember, AOL paid crazy dollars to purchase Netscape and then promptly got thrashed by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. It was pretty much a wasted purchase.

Money muscle alone used to be enough back in the old days. Today, even an acquisition on a gargantuan scale can and will be wasted if there isn’t a solid game plan in place for not only the acquisition but the short term future of both companies. In this instance, that means opening up to the search engine optimization community and really becoming involved with the opinions of the average Joe who might consider using their search engine. This really should be approached much like a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Internet community – a constant struggle that Microsoft has had to endure for quite some time now.

A similar battle rages on with Microsoft vs. the open source community, and until recently Microsoft didn’t get it. It was and is very hip to bash Microsoft. Why is that? Even if Microsoft had the most perfect server OS in the history of mankind there would still be network administrators who would NEVER run a Microsoft OS. You know the kind of anti-Microsoft person I am talking about. They live to bash Microsoft. The first step to solving any problem is recognizing it exists, and that’s not a bad place to start for MSN.

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