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SES – Searching for SEO Meaning at MSN Live Search

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In the past, I’ve been critical of MSN for not participating in conferences. Today I’m going to be critical of them because they did participate. Steve Berkowitz, Senior Vice President, Online Services Group for Microsoft, was the keynote for day 2 of SES NY 2007 and it is one of the first keynotes I’ve regretted attending. I would have rather slept in.

It sounds as though Mr. Berkowitz has drunk the corporate Kool Aid. In his Q&A session with Danny Sullivan this morning at the New York Hilton, he called Microsoft "Amazing" no fewer than 10 times. (Actually he did reserve one of those for Google.)

Now his move from Ask.com – which he characterized himself as a "rowboat" – to Microsoft – which he calls a "Cruise Ship" by comparison, would no doubt be quite a transition.

To be fair to Berkowitz, I’ve heard tech industry commentators talk about Microsoft in much the same way – characterizing the people there and the projects they work on as nothing short of magical – but the morass of corporate culture somehow stifles all the smart people and waters down their projects until they are weak and wimpy.

It’s interesting that Ask.com is only a point or two away from Live.com in search referrals for many web sites. Even though (as Berkowitz has said) the little Ask.com rowboat is small, nimble and capable of a change in direction by dipping an oar in the water – MSN Live takes forever to change course – neither has been able to gain significant market share from Google.

Normally I like to quote liberally from keynotes, but that would make this article sound like a puff piece for MSN Live, because Berkowitz had so little to say if it wasn’t glowing praise for his employer. He did say repeatedly that great ("amazing") stuff was coming, but wouldn’t say what it was.

So all we have to base our expectations and insights on are silly things like Ms. Dewey (who I had heard about but hadn’t experienced "live"). She unexpectedly interrupted a Danny Sullivan Question to Steve Berkowitz, stepped up onto the stage in character of Ms. Dewey and continued her act (played by Janina Gavankar) interrupting and answering questions posed by Sullivan.

The little show was clearly planned, Berkowitz had to know about it, but Sullivan seemed a bit bewildered and flustered. The routine made absolutely no sense to me and the audience didn’t respond terribly well to it either. I think Ogilvy Advertising should be fired from the Live Search account because this character and the website is absurd.

For those who haven’t experienced it, Ms. Dewey answers questions after you type something in a search box. It is usually something cryptic that might apply to nearly any question, and there are 600 short film clips which make up her store of responses to questions.

The algorithm for that must have taken some engineers far too long, even though it doesn’t work terribly well. Then after the odd (sometimes ascerbic) answer from Ms. Dewey, you get a group of three search results on the right side of the screen. If you hover your mouse over the bottom of the third result, then more results scroll upward. These are clearly Live.com results but scrolling isn’t obvious and only three answers to your question?

I don’t get it – who wants to wait 5 – 10 seconds for that flash movie to load, then wait 10 – 20 seconds more for the response to load (Ms. Dewey is thinking…), then wait for three results where it isn’t clear there are more?

Further, there is a "Best of Dewey" button – which is reminiscent of "I’m Feeling Lucky" so I typed a question in the search box and clicked "Best of Dewey" waited 10 seconds and got my query replaced by something I didn’t type. OK, I get it, most popular clips – but they’re not good enough to justify that 10 to 15 second wait for a new clip each time you click the "best of" button.

So after sitting through the keynote, I’m not sure what I came away with, other than a page and a half of notes I can’t easily assemble into an article. So to prove I was there and show how little of substance was discussed, here’s a small chunk of my notes as an example.

Depth of engagement with users. Yahoo cross-network traffic. Search better integrated into MSN in a much cleaner way. Advantages of Microsoft is it’s reach. Data center perspective. Storage perspective. We’re moving everything from the desktop to the cloud. Microsoft has some amazing stuff going on… Great resources. Licensing business. subscription business.

I’m bewildered by Ms. Dewey, I’m confused by how Microsoft can be so "amazing" and still not produce a substantial and competitive search product, I’m left wondering where Steve Berkowitz is leading Live Search and I am utterly at a loss for what to say about Live.com except maybe to ask, "Where’s the search referral traffic?"

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About the Author

Mike Valentine is an SEO Specialist offering occassional commentary on Search Engine Developments through his Reality SEO Blog and developed WebSite101 Small Business Ecommerce Tutorial in 1999 to help educate the little guy to the intricacies of online business.

SES – Searching for SEO Meaning at MSN Live Search
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