What Web Marketers must know about MSN Search

February 1st, 2005


Originally published in MarketingProfs

Microsoft is gunning for Google and Yahoo.

Now MSN Search, the third most popular search engine, accounts for 15% of all search queries. (Google is first with 45% market share, and Yahoo second with 32%.)

A lot is at stake here for Web marketers. Whether you are knowledgeable about search engine marketing or just an observer at this point, you need to follow this development. Your search rankings — free and paid — in all the major search engines are important marketing assets.

A 15% market share is certainly nothing to sneeze at. I would expect this to grow over time as Microsoft leverages its installed base of Windows users, embedding MSN Search right into the users’ desktops in its new edition of Windows (codenamed “Longhorn.”)

MSN Search is already in beta for integration into MSN Messenger, its instant messaging application. Microsoft also has access to a range of channels beyond the desktop, such as PDAs, mobile phones and interactive TV. You can be sure that the new MSN Search will start to make an appearance on all of these devices.

Recently, Microsoft President and CEO Steve Balmer stated that his company is “hell bent and determined” to challenge Google for leadership in Internet search. Given Microsoft’s resources, it has as good a chance as anyone of achieving that goal.

Microsoft has been using Yahoo’s Inktomi search technology to power its MSN Search. But it has been feverishly working on its own search technology to replace the Inktomi engine.

Microsoft’s internally built MSN Search engine was soft-launched in beta mode in November. The long-awaited official launch that connects up with MSN.com’s home page occurred on February 1st.

How to Optimize for MSN Search

There is some preliminary good news here in that it doesn’t appear to be very difficult for search engine optimizers to achieve high rankings on the MSN Search beta.

The tried-and-true search engine optimization tactics appear to work quite well. These include keyword-rich title tags, keyword-rich body copy, links from important sites and keyword-rich text in the links from those sites.

The SEO tips and tactics I covered in my recent two-part article, “Best and Worst Practices in Search Engine Optimization: A Checklist,” appear to be as applicable to MSN Search as they are to Google and Yahoo.

The buzz on various SEO forums is that they actually wonder how long this “MSN Search heaven” will last. They even wonder whether it is a clever ploy to get the SEO community to side with Microsoft in order to help spread the buzz around the new search engine.

I don’t see any point in second-guessing Microsoft’s intentions here. The fact of the matter is that the search technology developed by the MSN Search team to date appears to be influenced by the same SEO tactics that work on Google and Yahoo. I have no reason to suspect that will change drastically over the next few months.

One specific optimization tactic that works extremely well on MSN Search is known as “Google bombing.” (Or, in this case, I guess it would be called “MSN bombing.”) With this tactic, if you can get sites that are considered important (i.e., high in PageRank score) to link to a particular page with specific link text, that page can do quite well in MSN Search even without having words that were used in the link text appearing anywhere on the page itself.

One of the most well-publicized examples of this tactic is “miserable failure.” If you look at the top search result on MSN Search beta for “miserable failure,” you will find that page doesn’t have the words “miserable” or “failure” anywhere in the page.

A few weeks ago, the dubious honor of being tops in search went to George W. Bush’s biography page on Whitehouse.gov. Then the honor shifted to Michael Moore’s home page. Currently, the honor goes to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s home page.

I think of this constant shifting as blogging warfare: one side links to George W. Bush’s biography with the words “miserable failure” in the hyperlink text, then there is a backlash with all the Bush-supporting bloggers linking to the Michael Moore’s home page using the words “miserable failure” in their link text. And both are overthrown by the anti-Hillary bloggers weighing in with their opinion. Well, at least no real blood is being shed.

Why is this “MSN bombing” relevant to you and your online marketing efforts? Well, if you achieve good link popularity from important sites and get those sites to use particular text in their link, specifically keywords that you are trying to achieve high rankings for, you will end up in a much-better position in MSN Search.

You may be tempted, now that there are three competing engines, to create separate versions of your Web pages tailored to the unique attributes of each engine.

In a word: Don’t.

There are two reasons for strongly discouraging this. First, it smacks of search engine spamming. Second, it will prove to be an ineffective approach, because it will dilute the PageRank importance of your pages.

Think of it this way: if you create three versions of a page, no entity would likely link to all three versions. Thus, all the links (remember, links act as “votes” that propel your particular page higher up the search results) wouldn’t be aggregating to the one definitive version of your page. The “votes” would be split up between three “competitors.”

The best advice I can offer is to continue to keep your site optimized for the main search engines. As long as your site is well optimized, you won’t find your position on MSN Search beta to be bad one. In fact, it may be quite good.

For example, a search for “Web site optimization” puts Netconcepts at number one, and this with “Web site optimization” only mentioned in the title tag and twice in the body text. However, we also have a small number of inbound links from high PageRank sites with the text “Web site optimization,” which seems to have helped our position.

Size Matters!

When Microsoft revealed MSN Search beta in November, it came out of the box with a five-billion document index; in other words, a searchable database of approximately five billion HTML pages, PDFs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, Powerpoints, etc.

Google took the wind out of Microsoft’s sails a little bit, though, by announcing a day before Microsoft’s unveiling that it had doubled the size of its own index to over eight billion documents.

Nonetheless, Microsoft’s sizeable index is an impressive feat and shows that Microsoft is a worthy competitor of the two other major engines.

Cozying up to MSNbot

Recently, Antyn Sydman of Microsoft’s MSN Search team offered some very useful specifics on what makes a Web site unfriendly to the MSNbot spider, the program that scours the Web for content to extract and place into its index.

Specifically, Sydman cautioned against having too many query parameters in the query string (that is the part of the URL that follows a question mark). More than five query parameters, and you’ll have a very low chance of being crawled by MSNbot.

Furthermore, if MSNbot needs to traverse through eight pages on your site before finding link pages that nobody but yourself points to, it may choose not to index those pages.

A site map is one method of getting around this. But there are other ways, through your internal linking structure and site hierarchy.

Also, making a site that encourages text linking from outside sites into pages deep within your Web site is a very good thing. For example, simple URLs that aren’t a mile long encourage Web masters to link to deep pages; of course, useful content does that as well.

Again, since MSN bot appears to be quite aggressive at spidering (after all, it has collected approximately five billion documents across the Web), it is pretty safe to have a dynamic Web site with question marks in your URLs. Just minimize the number of ampersands — and definitely avoid having session IDs or user IDs in your URLs — and you should be fine.

Querying MSN Search

From a search user’s perspective, the query syntax and advanced search operators of MSN Search beta work as one would expect. Wrap an exact phrase within quotes, just as you would on Google or Yahoo. The Boolean logic operators, AND, OR, NOT and parentheses, work too. You can use the plus sign in lieu of AND, and the minus sign in lieu of NOT.

Here’s an example of Boolean logic in action: (“search engine” OR “Web site”) AND (optimization OR marketing) which would deliver results containing search engine optimization, search engine marketing, Web site optimization, or Web site marketing.

MSN Search also supports the site: query operator to restrict the results to within a particular Web site or domain. Use it like so: “market research” site:www.marketingprofs.com. And, like Google, the site: operator will accept a top-level domain, for example: “market research” site:com will search for the phrase market research across all of the .com domain space.

The link: operator works to return pages that link to the specified URL. You can tack on additional search words or query operators to the link: command — unlike with Google — so you can eliminate certain search results or otherwise restrict results.

For example, if you wanted to see all of the links pointing to your home page and eliminate those pages that are within your own Web site, you would specify link:www.yoursite.com -site:www.yoursite.com.

Unlike Google, MSN Search doesn’t limit you to 10 search words in your queries, which is quite handy.

The loc: query operator allows you to limit search results to a particular geographic region. For example, marketing consultant loc:US will contain results solely from US-based Web sites.

The language: query operator allows you to restrict the language of the results. For example, language:en limits your search results to Web pages in English.

There are also a few operators that allow you to reorder the search results. The following three operators, unlike the ones mentioned above, must be followed by an equal sign then a number from 0 to 100. All this must then be placed within curly brackets: {}.

The frsh operator allows you to emphasize sites that are fresher (i.e., more recently added to MSN Search’s index). On the freshness scale, 100 gives the most emphasis to recently updated sites, 0 to the least recently updated. Use it like so: branding {frsh=100}.

The popl operator reorders results by popularity. For example, branding {popl=100} would place the most popular sites at the top. Finally, the mtch operator allows you to specify how precisely to match the search results to your query words. For example, branding {mtch=0} emphasizes the exact matches at the top of the search results. (Note that these three operators default to 50 if not specified.)

There is another useful feature called “Near Me,” which returns results that are geographically located near your location. It’s not very precise yet; it tends to define your location rather broadly. For example, New York also includes Long Island.

MSN Search determines your location through one of four means: your IP address, default location as you defined it under Settings, search terms (e.g., marketing consultants seattle will recommend a revised search with Near Me set to Seattle, WA), or your selection from the Try Near list in location-based search results.

A striking omission from the list of MSN’s query operators is inurl: or an equivalent. Thus, there is no way to restrict a search to only those results that contain a particular word or phrase in the URL. This is a real drag for us search engine optimizers, because it means we can’t check how many pages within a particular directory, or how many dynamic pages generated by a particular script name, are contained within MSN’s index.

Bringing It All Together

The reincarnation of MSN Search, powered by Microsoft-developed technology, promises to offer new opportunities for search engine marketers. I, for one, welcome the new competition in the search space.

High rankings in Microsoft’s new engine are important and will become increasingly more so. The good news is that this visibility is attainable.

To get there, follow SEO best practices and avoid worst practices as defined in my recent premium article series. Keep any dynamic URL as simple as possible — minimizing the number of ampersands. Don’t try creating doorway pages specifically optimized for MSN Search.

I suggest you benchmark your site now against those of your competitors (e.g., number of pages you have indexed, number of inbound links, positions for important keywords) with the useful search operators built into MSN Search.