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In Search of…

Microsoft has unveiled a trial version of its revamped MSN Search. It has a cleaner, simpler look and distinguishes ads from search results. The move is seen as an effort by the No. 3 search engine to catch up with Google and Yahoo, which control 35 percent and 30 percent of U.S. users’ searches, respectively. Microsoft handles 15 percent of search queries.

As part of the clean-up, Microsoft has reduced the number of ads that it serves up and displays them in shaded boxes with clear labels that tell them apart from search results.

I visited the trial site and keyed in “Fast Company” in the search bar. I did the same on Google, so that I could compare the two. Microsoft yielded 6,006,681 results, while Google gave 14,600,000 and showed the time spent on searching (0.26 seconds). Microsoft put three ads — all in a shaded box — before the search results and more on right-hand side bar. Google put all of its sponsored links on the right-hand side bar.

One thing that fascinates me is what I call the “advertiser’s dilemma.” Advertising tied to keyword searching was the fastest growing and the biggest of all U.S. Internet advertising categories in 2003, according to a report published in April by the Interactive Advertising Bureau. It showed that keyword search revenue made up 15 percent of online ad revenue in 2002 and jumped to 35 percent in 2003.

But at the same time, Internet users frown at paid ads. Advertisers grapple for eyeballs but have only paid for customers to turn away from them. It seems that Internet portels have a game of balance to play — between cleaner search results and more clicks on sponsored sites.

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