SEO for Microsoft Live Search (MSN)

Microsoft is the latest major player in the search engine game. It came to the scene in 2004, and has since lost half of its market share to Google. Microsoft continues to treat search as a top priority, and as you’ve heard, attempted to buy Yahoo for $40+ billion. With an eight percent market share, Microsoft doesn’t send many visitors, but you can benefit from relatively easy SEO techniques.

In this article we cover Live Search’s history, strategy and optimization.

Live Search, MSN, Windows Live

MSN (Microsoft Network) launched in August 24, 1995 as a consumer website and fought a portal battle with Yahoo, AOL, Lycos and other portals. Until 2004, Microsoft outsourced search to third party search engines; in July 2004 they launched their own search technology. They tweaked it until 2006 and then rebranded MSN Search to Live Search, confusing a lot of users.

I think this rebranding was one of their first mistakes, as MSN had a strong brand (portal, MSN messenger), while “Live” came out of the blue. Microsoft marketers (or whoever was in charge of branding) did not learn from Ford’s and Coke’s failed rebranding attempts, and are now stuck with a weaker brand than MSN.

Windows Live adds more to the overall confusion, as Microsoft expects users to recognize MSN, Live Search and Windows Live as distinct entities, even though all come from the same company. One wonders if the company’s marketing department was out to lunch when these decisions were made. 

Microsoft’s search engine is Live.

Quality of Search Results

Web Search

Live search’s quality varies, sometimes very strangely. Some of their search results are as good as other search engines, while others are outright full of spam. For instance financial and celebrity queries return quality, useful results (from what I saw when I tested), while many competitive adult queries show outright spam and 404s (even though the adult industry is a big as the celebrity or financial sector).

Image Search

I find Microsoft image search pretty good, or at least as good as Yahoo. Google has a slight lead and tends to hit the spot more often, but Microsoft is pretty good in this department. Their image search interface is different from the original approach used by search engines, and is challenging to the novice user.

News Search and Video Search

Their news search is okay for mainstream searches, but fails when it comes to local articles. I did not find any information on how to be included in their news search engine. For now it seems that they rely largely on mainstream media, since I couldn’t find any small publishers. My guess is that they made a list of mainstream media sources, set crawl priorities, and left it at that.

Keywords in the Domain Name

Microsoft places a LOT of emphasis on domain matching. As you use their search you’ll find that the top results are usually domain names that match the keywords, even with bad link profiles and mediocre content. Having keywords in the domain name is one of the key factors to ranking well on MSN (especially for a direct match).

Live Search Link Analysis

Microsoft came late to the search engine game, and their link analysis algorithms are much more primitive than Google’s and Yahoo’s. Both Google and Yahoo have been in the search business since the 90s, giving them a good view of old, quality links to better sort search results.

Microsoft, on the other hand, came to search when the web was already heavily commercialized and full of spam, making quality link detection from scratch more challenging. To this day Microsoft is very weak at determining quality links, which is one the biggest reasons their search results suck.

Directory Links

One can get good Live Search rankings by getting a big batch of cheap, anchor- rich directory links. The down side is that doing this can hurt your Google rankings, which are more important at the moment. In most cases you rank on Live Search first, then Yahoo and only then on Google, with Live being the easiest to rank for.

Quality of Links

Microsoft does not see much difference between quality editorial links and pure page rank spam. Though their search has improved since 2004, it’s still one of their biggest challenges. Their search technology is comparable to Google’s from several years back, before “Florida” and the “Big Daddy” Updates.

On Site and On Page Factors

Microsoft algorithms place much less value on domain authority than other search engines. Keywords in titles, H tags and content work really well. For example, you’ll do well with “city + keywords” in title.

You can get good rankings on Microsoft with basic SEO practices, like aligning your <titles> with keywords, plugging keywords into <H> tags, doing SEO copy writing, directing internal page rank to your most important pages and getting a bunch of directory listings. You will notice that before appearing on Google and/or Yahoo you’ll appear on Live search for some terms. You can use a free rank checker to monitor your progress.

Since Live search is the youngest of all search engines, Microsoft constantly tests and develops new algorithms. This means that top rankings can be easily lost with new updates or search technology that the Live team unveils. As you gain positions, don’t be surprised to lose them at once with an update.

Bargain Pay Per Click Bids

Live search users are, for the most part, non-savvy with computers, will use any search box, and see no difference between the address field and the search field. They are less aware of ads, making top PPC terms a cheap traffic strategy.

Holding around eight percent of the search pay-per-click market, Microsoft has less bidders in all industries, meaning their bids are considerably lower than on Yahoo and Google. Although their tiny market share will not bring you nearly as much traffic as Google will, Live search can drive quality referrals at cheap prices. You can take advantage of this bargain.

Universal Search

Just as Google and Yahoo, Microsoft has Universal Search. Searches for celebrities give pictures, along with news results. I’ve never seen videos in search results, but that may be because I don’t use Live enough.

Sitelinks

For results deemed very relevant, Microsoft provides sitelinks, similar to Google.

Local

Microsoft is behind when it comes to local search. Although they have an excellent map product (Live maps), they do not feature map results for local queries like “boston insurance broker” or “new York taxi” in the manner that Google does.

This is another mistake by Microsoft. Search is quickly taking market share from yellow pages, making the local sector an opportunity for search engines to command more markets. As in any sector, if you fail to establish yourself at the earliest opportunity before powerful companies grab ground, and enter the market later, you’ll have much more trouble gaining mind share.

Microsoft is lagging big time, letting Google consolidate in the local arena. If someone doesn’t get a clue fast at Microsoft headquarters, they will have to play another catch-up game in local, with Google enjoying even more market dominance.

Let’s keep in mind that Microsoft receives ~$40 billion per quarter (just three months) with ~$15 billion of pure profit. They have enough cash that they can afford, short-term, to lose money in search, until they develop useful search technology or gain market share.

I think the problem is that Microsoft looks at search as purely another medium to consolidate, monopolize and milk for money. Even in CEO speeches to employees, Microsoft is clear on their strategy, which is “to win advertisers.” Google, on the other hand, has the goal of “organizing world’s information” (and make money while at it). In their presentations “user comes first.” Compare that to “win advertisers” and you’ll start to see why Google is killing Microsoft in search.

Microsoft has tried to bribe users with “Cash Back,” but so far failed miserably. About a year ago (or so) they struck deals with corporations to make Live search a default home page. Microsoft is trying to buy its way into the game. Instead of focusing of users and spoiling them like Google and Yahoo, Microsoft seems to care more about the strategic aspects of the game. What they fail to see is that spoiling users with perks, free useful stuff and a seamless experience is at the core of their rival’s strategy (just browse through Google’s free toolset offers, and research their testing discipline).

Microsoft could accomplish much more if instead of “forcing” and “bribing” users, they hired an additional 200 engineers to develop better search technology.

Microsoft is not going away. Their OS cash reserves allow them to be unprofitable until they achieve a better market share or a better understanding of the web. As time goes on, we will have either:

  • Google / Yahoo / Microsoft

  • Google / Yahoo + Microsoft

Microsoft Tools

  • Demographic Prediction – predicts age and gender for keywords based on their internal customer data,

  • Commercial Intent – predicts commercial intent of website/keyword.

  • Keyword Research Platform – very detailed keyword research platform for AdCenter advertisers. Must have an AdCenter login to participate.

  • Keyword Forecast - forecasts the impression count and predicts demographic distributions of keywords.

  • Keyword Mutation – searches for misspelled keywords

  • Cross-Language Keyword Suggestion – suggests keywords in different languages.

You can find more tools at Ad Center Labs. Check all of them, as they will give you a peek at what Microsoft has under the hood when it comes to search technology.

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