Sunday, June 23, 2024

Interview with a Lead MSN Program Manager

As many of you may know, Fredrick Marckini is the founder and CEO of, one of the country’s leading search engine positioning companies.

interviews were conducted in the course of writing his newest book,”Search Engine Positioning.” The 450+ page “mega” book (the most comprehensive resource I’ve ever seen on the topic) will be in bookstores in May.

The new book “Search Engine Positioning” can be preordered at

Information gained from these interviews will be presented in the book’s “how-to” engine-by-engine chapters.

The interview with a “Lead Program Manager” of MSN was fairly long, but I’ll try to condense it down into information that I believe you’ll find useful. First, it’s important to understand how MSN works before you can effectively promote your Web site there.

MSN combines results from four distinct sources:
1. Popular Search Topics (DirectHit)
2. Featured Sites (MSN reviewed sites)
3. Web Directory Sites (Looksmart)
4. Web Pages (Inktomi)

MSN Popular Search Topics (DirectHit)

The Popular Search Topic links are in a separate area at the top of the page and are pulled from Up to four links will be displayed and only for the more popular search terms.

DirectHit ranks pages based on content first, and then they start assigning popularity ratings to pages by measuring how often people click on the listing and how long they stay at the site. The score is then adjusted based on the current ranking of the page so that sites further down the list do not have to be clicked on as often in order to have a chance of moving up the list.

For example, if many people click on your Web site and then quickly hit the back button and select a different listing, you’ll be penalized. Therefore, you can see how my previous article in this month’s issue entitled “How to Create High Quality Content” will be crucial to enhancing your rankings on DirectHit, as well as all DirectHit partners such as MSN. People must like the content they see in order to stay on your site.

For more detailed information regarding improving your rankings on DirectHit and DirectHit partner listings like on MSN, see my article entitled “Scoring Better on DirectHit”.

MSN Featured Sites (reviewed sites)

After any DirectHit matches are displayed, you may see up to five “Featured Sites.” These are sites that the MSN staff have reviewed and feel are editorially relevant to that search. You’ll mainly see Featured Sites for more popular searches like cars, travel, mp3, etc.

According to the MSN Program Manager interviewed by Mr. Marckini, here are some tips for getting your site included in the Featured Sites listings:

Go through the URL submission process (to Looksmart) correctly.

Be an authority at what you do. When an MSN editor sees great content at your site, you’re more likely to be put at the top in one of MSN’s editorial selected areas.

Use the right keywords that are accurate descriptions of what your site contains (be honest in your site description and title).

Differentiate yourself in an area where there’s not as much competition.

Although the contact did not indicate this, you might try e-mailing MSN, preferably someone in the editorial department if you can find such a contact. Explain how your site would be highly relevant to their users for certain searches. You’d have the best chance of being included in this section if you first wait until you have a Looksmart listing and you’ve done everything you can to improve the quality of your content.

Once you’re ready to contact MSN, take advantage of services like WordTracker to find reasonably popular keywords where MSN does not currently list four or five featured sites already. You can then argue that many people are searching on “Keyword X” but they do not currently have any featured sites listed there. You could then discuss how your site is a perfect match for that search. Ideally, you should list some things that make your site unique and different from your competitors. Be polite in your e-mail since a demanding attitude in this situation will definitely get your e-mail deleted.

Mr. Marckini asked the MSN representative whether one had to pay to be included in the Featured Listings area. The Program Manager admitted that although some of the very top search terms have sites that pay fees to be included in that area, that “Our absolute bar is editorial relevance. Any paid relationship comes secondary.” He went on to say that there are many listings that their editorial staff found that they simply feel are editorially relevant and that the company pays nothing to be listed there.

MSN Web Sites (Looksmart)

After any featured sites are listed, MSN will display results from the Looksmart directory. These results may match the rankings on Looksmart, but the MSN representative indicated they often tweak the ranking algorithm to the formula that they believe works best.

Looksmart results are displayed on a number of major engines besides MSN. Therefore, getting a good listing on Looksmart should become a high priority in your marketing strategy. Since Looksmart charges a fee to be listed, before submitting to Looksmart, maximize your chances of obtaining a good listing by seeing our “Looksmart Submission Guide”

MSN Web Pages (Inktomi)

For search terms that don’t find enough matches in the other results areas, MSN will pull pages from the Inktomi database. Inktomi is used on a number of major engines such as HotBot, Iwon, and others. Does this mean your Inktomi rankings will be identical on MSN as elsewhere? They are often similar, but they may differ.

Here’s a snippet from Mr. Marckini’s interview:

Marckini: “Now do you tweak around the edges of Inktomi? You know word stemming, automatic pluralization, stop words, de-emphasizing some words in the query…I don’t know what latitude Inktomi gives you to customize your interface to them.”

MSN: “Yeah, I wouldn’t say that our interface with them is exactly the same as with other partners. We’ve worked around what we think is the best for now. And we’re working for our future releases to be even smarter about that. Can’t go into details about that now but that will be something that will be in our next release.”

The MSN Program Manager also indicated that some synonym matching was employed for the more popular search terms. For example, he said “synonyms…things like autos or cars will get you the same list of websites” for searches on MSN.

So, my advice is to keep an eye on your MSN Inktomi rankings with WebPosition’s Reporter since they may vary from other Inktomi partners. The WebPosition Gold Page Critic will give you the latest information on functional and statistical differences in the various Inktomi engines in case you need to optimize differently for each Inktomi engine.

How MSN Deals With Spamdexing

One of the reasons MSN uses multiple data sources, they claim, is in part an effort to outwit spamdexers.

“There are many clever programmers who get paid a lot by unscrupulous companies to figure out ways around all of the rules,” our contact pointed out. “A lot of the same things that legitimate business owners try to do to help their rankings are exploited by others – especially pornography people. So we work very closely with Inktomi to get them out. We have a team here who has become experts in the cold war of technologies and counter technologies and trying to eliminate spam.”

MSN described this increasingly common annoyance: Some unscrupulous spammers have begun to search out domain names owned by small businesses that are about to expire. They’ll try to estimate how much traffic the site attracts, they’ll then buy the domain and then put up a Web page that redirects to their porn site. Because of search engine crawling frequency, many search engines will still have the old page title and description in their index, so you click on what you think may be a site selling inkwell pens, but instead you get trapped in a porn site’s click captures. “It’s absolutely obnoxious,” the MSN contact said.

MSN Warning to Cloakers: MSN claims to ban sites that employ cloaking technology. To gain the upper hand against companies that attempt to employ cloaking software to hide their HTML code, the representative indicated that they share information about companies they’ve caught cloaking or spamdexing with Inktomi and other search engines.

Mr. Marckini then went on to add “If you still think that the search engines do not care that you’re using cloaking software, think again. Every search engine we interviewed (and even MSN who most would consider primarily a directory) went on the record for my new book, Search Engine Positioning, that they ban companies that use cloaking software.”

Obviously many cloaked sites are not banned. Some only target keywords that are relevant to their site, but the engines appear to be seeing that the technology undermines their ability to rank pages based on their own ranking algorithms. Therefore, based on feedback from people using the technology, it’s obvious that you’re not guaranteed to be caught when using cloaking. However, be aware that according to Mr. Marckini, the engines appear to be taking a stronger stance against this technique.

What MSN Wishes You’d Understand

Our MSN contact said that he gets frustrated that people often want traffic that’s not appropriate or related to their site, and it doesn’t get them good results. “They tell us their click-through rates and conversion rates aren’t good,” he said. He gives an advertising example for comparison. His advertising clients who place ads for very targeted searches get fantastic results, versus clients who place the same ad for broad searches. The same principle applies to positioning your site in a search engine or directory. The more targeted or narrow your niche (the more specific the keyword phrase you’re targeting), the more likely you’ll get the exact traffic (and results) you want.

“It sounds so logical, but even some of our larger clients don’t understand at first,” he indicated. “But people are finally starting to get it.”

MSN: What About Dynamic Pages and Query Strings?

If your Web site contains query strings or dynamically generated pages that are difficult for search engine spiders to crawl, stay tuned. MSN hinted that they will be doing a good deal more linking to pages that are uncrawlable in their “Featured Sites” section:

“If you look at our featured site section, not only are they featured because we chose them but you’ll also notice that they’re action oriented. We’ve taken all the best things we know about exactly what people are looking for in search results and how they want to get to a site. They’re very popular, and we think it’s not only because of placement but because of how editorially finicky we are, how we word them, and the quality of how deep we link in the site. We’re going to be deep linking into a number of sites that may or may not be able to be crawled. It’s about getting our users the best content there is.”

The above article, or portions of it, have been reprinted with permission from the MarketPosition Newsletter and FirstPlace Software, Inc. and is copyright 1997-2001. FirstPlace produces WebPosition Gold, the award-winning software product to track and to improve your search engine rankings. You may download a FREE trial copy of WebPosition Gold from:

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