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The end result: For the 1 keyphrase that matters, the site did a major leap within a week across the board in Google, Yahoo, and MSN Beta, going from effectively off the radar, to top 40 in Google (and climbing so long as I do an update a day, which I haven't had the time to do), originally top 30 in Yahoo, but has recently climbed to top 20 (too soon to say if this is a stable climb in Yahoo).
Interestingly, the site went directly to the #1 spot in MSN Beta (not page 1, but the #1 spot, period), where it has remained ever since, aside from a 1 day drop on Boxing Day to the #3 spot.
Returned Search Results
MSN Beta: 5,713,822
* At first, I thought the total # of responses was, at least in part, the reason for my higher placement in MSN. I no longer believe this is the case, however.
High. Significant # of sponsor results for this keyphrase in all SE's, across the board.
All three engines are crawling the site daily, with daily caches.
While the order is different for all three SEs, the top 50 results are essentially the same in all 3 SEs. The same sites are occupying the the list, just in different orders. Also, the top 10 is quite consistent (though the order differs somewhat) in all 3 SEs, my site being a notable anomaly in MSN. It is because the top 50 sites are so consistant across all three SEs, that I tend to discount the total number of responses for my high placement in MSN
So why the markedly different results?
This is, quite literally, keeping me up at nights. The #1 spot in both Google and Yahoo is held by a site that has been "online" (initially as a subscription based monthly e-mail) since 1991. If I mentioned the name of it, I can guarantee you would recognize it. To be honest, my site has no business knocking it out of the #1 spot. I have about 1% of the total amount of content available, and a very small fraction of the number of backlinks. I'm going to use this site as the comparison point, because of it's top placement in Google and Yahoo.
In theory, the lower number of total responses might well indicate that they're simply not seeing the backlinks. Using an extended backlink checking service, I have been able to determine that MSN registers nearly 5x the number of backlinks for the #2 site (we'll call it www.establishedcompetition.com from now on) as it does for the #1 site (www.mysite.com). Researching the quality of Backlinks, www.establishedcompetition.com has backlinks from more sites with higher PR as well. Because MSN is registering a higher number of backlinks for www.establishedcompetition.com , I am taking this as further evidence that my high placement has little to do with the smaller number of total responses returned in MSN search beta. It also would seem to indicate that MSN search Beta isn't placing a whole lot of weight on Backlinks.
Both www.mysite.com and www.establishedcompetition.com are registered in the same part of the directory of DMOZ, in which the search term I am using as a the focus of the analyses is a part of the DMOZ category. I can't draw any conclusions from this, as a result.
On Page Factors
This is where things start to diverge a bit. While both www.mysite.com and www.establishedcompetition.com have an almost identical number of occurances of the keyphrase on the home page, the similarity ends here. On www.mysite.com, the term has one specific occurance much closer to the name of the site in the body text. Also, www.establishedcompetition.com uses old style font tags and table structure, whereas www.mysite.com uses inline CSS, for fonts, but roughly the same type of tabling structure for layout. This indicates to me that both the placement of the search term, as well as the use of CSS, is taken into consideration by MSN Search Beta. Perhaps.
Both www.establishedcompetition.com and www.mysite.com have remarkably similar Title attributes, with almost identical use of the keyowrds in the Title tag. Can't draw any conclusions from this, although I believe it plays a factor.
The major "unseen code" difference between the two pages is in the meta. www.establishedcompetition.com uses no meta tags whatsoever. www.mysite.com uses both the "description" and the "keywords" tags, with high prevalence placed on the chosen keyphrase. This is the single biggest difference between the two sites that weighs in www.mysite.com's favor.
I know I'm taking a big leap here, but I've come to the following conclusions:
MSN Search Beta, because it has a much newer database, doesn't currently give a rat's fart how old and well established a site is.
MSN Search Beta is also putting much less weight on Backlinks than the other engines. This could be for any number of reasons, including, perhaps, that someone at MSN has decided that backlinks have become an all too easy way of gaming the results in current SEs.
MSN seems to like CSS over font. This is well in line with other SEs. Keep placing your keyords in the H1 tags, and you'll keep MSN happy along with all the rest.
The Potentially Controversial Statement: MSN likes Meta, and puts a lot of weight on it. Without comparing it to various test pages, I have yet to determine if they use Meta as a standalone measure, or are using it only if it's in line with on page factors.
Opening up the Floor To Discussion
I could be totally wrong in all my assumptions, but if anyone here has any similar evidence, or evidence to the contrary, I wouldn't mind hearing about it.