Gunning for Google

Microsoft is gunning for Google and Yahoo! Unhappy that its MSN Search is only the third most popular search engine, Microsoft has feverishly been working on its own search technology to replace Yahoo!’s Inktomi engine, which had been powering MSN Search.

Microsoft’s internally built MSN Search engine soft-launched in beta mode in November. The official launch that will connect with’s home page should be imminent.

A lot is at stake here for Web marketers. MSN Search currently has a 15% share of the search engine market, which will probably grow over time as Microsoft leverages its installed base of Windows users, embedding MSN Search into users’ desktop in a new edition of Windows codenamed Longhorn. What’s more, MSN Search is already in beta for integration into MSN Messenger, its instant messaging application. Microsoft also has access to PDAs, mobile phones, and interactive TV. You can be sure that the new MSN Search will start to appear on all these devices.

Recently Microsoft president/CEO Steve Ballmer 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 any of achieving this goal.

Happily, it doesn’t appear to be difficult for search engine optimizers to achieve high rankings on the new MSN Search. The tried-and-true optimization tactics appear to work quite well. These include

  • keyword-rich title tags

    The text within your page title is given more weight by the search engines than any other text on the page; keywords at the beginning of the title tag are given the most weight. Leading with keywords relevant to your business and popular with searchers can make your page appear more relevant in a search.

  • keyword-rich body copy

    Relevant and popular keywords should also be included in each page’s body copy, particularly near the top. But don’t go overboard — ideally you should incorporate 200-250 words on each page so that the search engines have enough “meat” to determine the theme of the page.

  • links from “important” sites

    “Link popularity” — the number of links that point to your site — is a key criterion that search engines use for ranking pages, but with an important twist: There’s a weighting factor placed on each link to take into account the importance of the page linking to you. Google has given a name to its importance-scoring algorithm: PageRank. Both MSN Search and Yahoo! appear to use similar importance-scoring systems. As such, links from “important” sites are of critical importance to your search visibility.

  • keyword-rich text in the links from sites

    Search engines associate the anchor text in the hyperlink as highly relevant to the page being linked to. So use good keywords in the link text to help the engine better ascertain the theme of the page to which you are linking. But keep the link text relatively succinct and tightly focused on just one keyword or key phrase.

One specific optimization tactic that works well on MSN Search is known as Google bombing. With this tactic, if you can get sites that are considered important to link to a particular page with specific link text, that page can do well in MSN Search even if the words used in the link text don’t appear anywhere on the page itself.

Now that there are three major competing engines, you may be tempted to create separate versions of your Web pages tailored to the unique attributes of each. In a word: Don’t. First, it smacks of search engine spamming. Second, it will prove to be ineffective, because it will dilute the PageRank importance of your pages. Think of it this way: If you create three versions of a page, nobody is going to link to all three versions — they will link only to one. Thus, all the links won’t be aggregating to the one definitive version of your page. The volume of links will be split up among three.

Querying MSN Search

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

MSN Search also supports the site: query operator to restrict the results to within a particular site or domain. Use it like so: “market research” 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 as well, 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 that you can eliminate certain search results or otherwise restrict results.

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 U.S.-based Websites.

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 encapsulated in curly brackets ({|). The frsh operator allows you to emphasize sites that are fresher (i.e. more recently added to MSN Search’s index); 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, and the mtch operator allows you to specify how precisely to match the search results to your query words. Note that these three operators default to 50 if not specified.

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.

Bringing it all together

The reincarnation of MSN Search, powered by Microsoft-developed technology, promises to offer new opportunities for search engine marketers. To achive high rankings in Microsoft’s new engine, follow search engine optimization best practices and avoid worst practices.

Keep any dynamic URLs as simple as possible, minimizing the number of ampersands in the URLs. Don’t try creating doorway pages specifically optimized for MSN Search. Benchmark your site against those of your competitors with the search operators built into MSN Search. To date Microsoft has graciously been allowing the use of automated querying tools of MSN Search beta, which should make ongoing benchmarking even easier.

Stephan Spencer is founder/president of Netconcepts, a Madison, WI-based agency specializing in search engine optimization and Website usability.

Cozying up to MSNbot

Recently Antyn Sydman of Microsoft’s MSN Search team offered some useful specifics on what makes a Website unfriendly to its MSNbot spider, the program that scours the Web for content to extract and place into its index. Sydman cautioned against having too many query parameters in the query string (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.

That said, encouraging text linking from “important” sites into pages deep within your Website can raise your visibility. URLs that aren’t a mile long help encourage Webmasters to link to deep pages, as does useful content, of course. Since MSNbot appears to be quite aggressive at spidering (after all, it has collected approximately 5 billion documents across the Web), I think it is pretty safe to have a dynamic Website 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.
— SS

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