Searching Beyond the Paid

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Will MSN Ever Catch The Big Guys of Search?

Much has been said in many different forums and blogs about search engine market share, and it's all pretty much the same story: Google's the biggest, by far, with anywhere from 50% to 70% of all searches. Yahoo is next, with 20% to 25%. Then, there's MSN. Despite the fact that Internet Explorer comes with MSN as its default home page, few people seem to be searching there. (As an aside, our stats for non-PPC search traffic are as follows: Google 65%, Yahoo 20%, MSN 12%. At least we're average!)

As a PPC marketer, though, market share isn't everything. Everyone talks about the long tail - those low volume keywords that provide such a great return on investment. Bigger isn't necessarily better. Or is it?

I look at a few key factors when evaluating a PPC program: ease of use (I'm talking about the user interface here, not the engine itself), volume and quality of traffic, and, most importantly, ROI. As far as ROI goes, MSN is leading the pack - most likely due to the fact that ads only appear on MSN, not garbitrage sites lumped into the "search" partner network. I don't have to worry about click fraud or bad keyword surprises when it comes to MSN.

Where MSN falls down is on volume and ease of use. Traffic and order volumes are about 10% of what we get from Google; and about 25% of what we get from Yahoo. That alone puts the program way down the priority list. It's just not a leveraged use of my time. Couple that with the massively clunky, slow, user-unfriendly adCenter interface, and I barely even want to log in to my account, much less spend time fine-tuning keywords and ad copy.

I don't even know which I'd like MSN to address first: increasing volume, or fixing the UI. I do think they're trying to increase their traffic, by promoting Live Search and running contests. But why did they rebrand as Live Search anyway? What does that even mean? As far as I can tell, they lost whatever brand identity they might have had when they did that.

Fixing the UI will be a major undertaking. I've been using the newer "beta" UI for several months now, because we were one of the first advertisers in the Content program. Well, from where I sit, it's barely discernable from the old UI. Most of the really annoying problems from the old came riding along into the new: slow page loads, confusing tabs for managing ads and keywords, poor reporting capabilities, no account search function to speak of, etc. And then, recently, there's been the rash of editorial rejections for very inconsistent reasons. All of which adds up to monumental frustration every time I try to do something in the UI.

On the plus side, MSN's customer service reps are really nice people who, I believe, genuinely want to help their customers. But they're hamstrung by the same system issues I'm grappling with, along with constant "reorganizations" and shuffling of personnel, which doesn't help.

So, does MSN have the stuff to compete, or are they destined to bring up the rear? Unless they can work through some of these problems, I see them lagging behind for the foreseeable future.


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