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Tuesday, February 1st, 2005

Why am I still using Google?

When Yahoo dropped Google results in favor of its own Inktomi generated listings, the search world expected Yahoo to gain some ground in market share. While this did in fact happen, the increase was relatively insignificant, and Google remained on top. Now that MSN has released its own search technology and no longer relies on Inktomi based results, will they see a significant increase in users?

My personal opinion is no. Sure their market share may increase, but I doubt, in the short term anyways, that they will make any significant increases to overtake Google. I’ll use myself as an example. I personally look at search results across the big three on a daily basis across a wide range of industries. In my opinion (and I am sure many SEO’s and webmasters will back me up on this) MSN now provides better, more accurate and relevant search results. That being said, I still use Google for my personal searching.

Whether I am at home, or in the office, Google is my search engine of choice. My wife uses Google, most of my friends and family use Google, and lets face it, the majority of searchers worldwide use Google. So why, if MSN is providing better results, do I still revert back to Google, knowing that I will most likely have to filter through a bunch of rubbish.

I think this is due to a number of factors. For years now I’ve been using Google, dating back to before I entered this industry, at a time when Google was providing relevant results. So a big part of this is habit. My fingers automatically type Google.com whether I like it or not. My default home page is set to Google. The only toolbar I have installed is the Google toolbar. This began for the checking of Page Rank, but now I use it almost exclusively for its search field.

Even though I know MSN provides better results (in most cases) I still use Google. This makes me think that the general public, many of which are unaware that MSN has changed, will also stick with Google. Behavior patterns are hard to break – although a month late, perhaps I will make it my new years resolution to stop using Google.

Part of the draw to use Google is the cleanliness of the site. Even though MSN has released, along with its new results, a new look and feel, it may still seem too cluttered, and many times slow loading, for users looking to simply perform a basic search.

The general searching public likely doesn’t realize that results from one engine are more relevant than that from another, or that the results generated in MSN were once duplicates of what you would find in Yahoo. Many tend to stick with what they know – they’ve always used Google, and as they haven’t “shopped around” so to speak, don’t realize that the other engines may have more to offer. Old habits are hard to break – and until such a time as a “quit Google patch” is invented, many may be there to stay.

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Wednesday, January 19th, 2005

MSN(beta) Is Now Live

MSN has removed the beta-wrap from its proprietary search engine and is now showing self-generated results at MSN.Com. Beta results had started bleeding into MSN listings over the past three weeks but since Sunday (Jan 16), the .COM (US / Global) version of MSN has consistently mirrored those found at MSN(beta). Regional versions of MSN continue to display Inktomi (Yahoo owned) / Regional partner generated results (Jan19, 05).

At this time two years ago, Google was the only major search database, feeding search results to Yahoo and eventually by extension to MSN. Around this time last year, Yahoo began to break away from Google by amalgamating data from its acquisitions of Overture, AlltheWeb, AltaVista and Inktomi into a monster database built on the dbase they bought from FAST. This was a huge project that resulted in a database almost as large as Google’s. When Yahoo stopped using Google generated results, MSN stopped showing them as well. At the same time, a new spider named MSNbot was making its presence known, appearing in our clients’ server-logs with amazing frequency.

The introduction of an MSN search engine makes the business world of search a lot more interesting and might help open the door for other smaller firms such as Lycos and Ask Jeeves to gain a toehold against Google. However MSN changes the business of search, it will help improve on the science of it by innovation rather than invention.

The engineers at MSN have had the luxury of watching everyone else invent dozens of wheels. They have had the time to see what works well and what makes money. They have watched great ideas that should have succeeded fall to failure and not so great ideas flourish until the market determined their death. Having created much of the environment themselves, they also know the histories of the web and appear to have learned when to act and when to lay-low.

The search engine that they have produced takes factors that worked well for others and combined them to make what could become a very popular search tool.

Like Google, MSN’s spider finds new sites by following links directed to those sites. MSNbot is active all the time. So active in fact that about five weeks ago a few webmasters reported so many visits their servers crashed. MSN revisits sites very frequently as well. Over the past year, MSN has compiled a 5-Billion site database.

Once a site is in the database, MSN looks at the number of links directed to that site. There is no hard data on the role topical relevancy plays in how MSN determines links however it is assumed by most that anchor text plays a major role. (Anchor text did factor in our initial tests however with the beta version of the engine)

Next, MSN looks at the content of the site. This is where much of the ranking determination is made. Sites with great text and clear internal link-paths are ranking very well with MSN. Of our entire client base, only one site with excellent text and internal linking lost a top placement at MSN when the new version was introduced. Strong, keyword enriched titles and body text continue to provide strong placements. We are fairly certain that the anchor text of internal links can influence placements as well.

Size matters with MSN as larger sites with long-term content appear to be doing very well under more generic keyword searches. Content rich news and information sites and large corporate sites should be able to leverage their size and content-scope into high placements. The size and content-scope factor should also work well with large e-commerce sites, provided a very clear mapping technique makes the site as easy to access as possible for MSNbot.

There is a simple experiment that folks should run every time a new search engine is introduced or a new algorithm is applied. Open three browser windows (or click on the following links) and cue up MSN.Com, Google.Com, and Yahoo.Com. Enter a keyword phrase important to your business or interests. For this example, I will use one I am familiar with, “Artificial Turf”.

Look for similarities between what you know works at Google and Yahoo and you can learn what works well at MSN. The Field Turf website ranks #1 at each of the Big3 under the phrase “artificial turf”. The index page itself is dynamically generated and does not always present the same text information limiting the effectiveness of seo-copyrighting and keyword densities.

There are several remaining areas on the site SEO work could be applied and a number of off-site factors that collectively contribute to the site’s top placements. Based on this simple test, we can determine the following.

A website that has a large number of incoming links will get noticed and spidered a number of times. Google recognizes 131 unique domains linking to the Field Turf website. Yahoo notes over 1000. MSN sees far more, weighing in above 1500. Next, note the “quality” of incoming links. Google is taking a very refined approach to contextual-quality while Yahoo and MSN seem more interested in the number of links.

Titles make a big difference at all three and are an important area to work on when doing basic SEO for MSN. MSN also seems to be able to read text found in drop-down menus such as the ones on the right hand side of the Field Turf index page.

Another important factor in improving and retaining rankings is updating the site. MSN states on its “How MSN Search Works” page that pages that are active will be spidered more frequently and achieve stronger rankings.

The business of search has changed radically over the past four months, working through a scenario that has been building for about two years. MSN going live with their own search engine is huge news with as many unknown implications as known ones. Its presence will challenge many basic assumptions about SEO and will play a large hand in determining the future of the search industry itself. The greatest general change is the burst of corporate diversity and identity in the search marketplace. A range of new products and services has been introduced by every search tool from the Big3 to the dozen or so smaller but notable search firms. Google is buying ad-space and fiber optics. Yahoo is reporting massive earnings as it pushes into the Chinese market, and MSN is suddenly in the house, so to speak. The precursors of change are written on the wall and MSN is betting much of that change will be found between the walls of your home.

More on MSN very soon.

The extremely useful Overture keyword suggestion page has been crashing over the past few days. Used by thousands of SEOs as a way to judge the user-popularity of specific words and phrases, the Overture Keyword Selection tool was an integral part of the SEO toolkit.

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Monday, January 17th, 2005

MSN Beta is now MSN-Live

It’s official folks, MSN (beta) is powering MSN.Com! At least it is today.

We have been conducting random tests over the past three hours and have not seen old-MSN results. Unless otherwise noted, assume MSN(Beta) is now MSN-Live

Fast Search and Transfer of Norway has won a very large contract from AOL to develop a search platform based on its FAST enterprise search technology across various applications in the AOL network.

Owned by media giant Time Warner, AOL has spent the last year trying to re-enter the search engine market as a relevant player. Coupled with this announcement, AOL also entered into an agreement with Pure Networks to develop home networking tools for AOL subscribers with broadband access.

In an interview with WebProNews, AOL Executive Director of Digital Services, David Park said, “Making the AOL service go to work for our members no matter how they access it is pivotal and we chose to work with Pure Networks because we share a common vision of making the AOL ‘digital home’ easy-to-use and manage. Even with home networking on the rise, the technology can be complex and difficult to manage. With AOL Network Magic, we will deliver a product that is simple, intuitive and helps maximize the value of a home network.”

As more information and entertainment options move to the digital world, home networking is going to be one of the major trends in the coming years.

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Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

MSN Desktop

MSN held a massive telephone news conference earlier this week to announce its version of a desktop search application. Like Google desktop, MSN’s offering spiders and indexes various files found on your computer’s hard-drive such as Word documents, Acrobat files, PowerPoint presentations, and spreadsheets. Unlike Google Desktop, this program catalogs a wider variety of files such as Email attachments, photos, music, and even software packages. Read more…

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Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

2004 – A Year of Search in Review

This is the last edition of the StepForth Weekly News for 2004, making this the perfect time to write a retrospective before moving into the new year. The past year will be remembered as the most interesting year in the history of search, that is until this time next year. 2004 witnessed the end of the search engine cold-war and the beginning of what is likely to be an intense rivalry between Google and MSN. It also showed a clear demarcation between who’s hot and who’s not in the business of search. Read more…

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Wednesday, October 20th, 2004

MSN PREVIEW

A REAL MSN PreviewThere has been mucho chatter on the airwaves about the up and coming MSN search engine. For the second time there is a preview for tech users to check out and run searches on. Check it out here and see where your site sits within the database right now.

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Thursday, September 30th, 2004

Clusty.com… why oh why

Well Vivisimo finally launched a user friendly interface for its information clustering technology. Unfortunately they decided to name it “Clusty.” Aside from the rather unfortunate name, however, I believe they really have something worthwhile using here. The site appears simple to use and the results appear to be of sound quality on the few searches I have completed. Anyway, we recommend checking it out because it has a few tricks up its sleeve that many of the other search engines will likely integrate. Read more…

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Thursday, August 12th, 2004

Cuban's Ice Rocket

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is taking on a new challenge, Google. Last week, Cuban introduced ICE ROCKET, a new search tool that mixes algorithmic and meta search to produce very relevant results. Long-term Internet users will remember Cuban’s last challenge, Broadcast.Com, now the largest streaming broadcaster on the web. There are many features to IceRocket including thumbnail views of the page referenced in search engine results.