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Analyzing why I'm doing well in MSN Search

Thinking out loud, feel free to correct my assumptions.

11:27 pm on Jan 6, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Background: At the end of November, I launched a major makeover of a site that has been around for a few years, and the makeover was specifically targetting SEO factors, using "on page" factors, almost exclusively "white hat" techniques. The techniques used were ones I gleaned primarily from WebmasterWorld, with a few SEO blogs as secondary resources.

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
Google: 20,700,000
Yahoo: 13,700,000
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.

Keyphrase Competitiveness
High. Significant # of sponsor results for this keyphrase in all SE's, across the board.

Crawl Regularity
All three engines are crawling the site daily, with daily caches.

SERP Consistency
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.

Unseen Code
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.

11:59 pm on Jan 6, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I've been doing well with msn as well sticky me with the url and the techniques you used and I'll have a look at the onsite and offsite optimisation to see if I can spot anything.
1:57 am on Jan 7, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I agree with most of your guesses, or at least think they are reasonable, except for the meta thing, I barely use meta and am number one for some phrases, some pretty decent.

I also have suspected a preference for clean html, which is something my sites all have. Backlinks count I'm sure, there would be no other way to separate number 1 from 100 in very competitive phrases.

I agree that one thing that really freaks some seos out is that their floating on the old site gravy train isn't respected by MSN, my suspicion is that many of the people here complaining about low quality serps aren't seeing their old domain in the serps. I'd love to see pages get judged on the quality content they offer, not how old the domain / url is, I think that's a huge mistake on google's part, but it's starting to make sense to me how that mistake came to be, it forms a very consistent pattern.

<< MSN seems to like CSS over font. This is well in line with other SEs. >>

I have never, ever, seen other search engines give a preference to css, quite the contrary, when I do keyword studies, most top 10 sites on google share this:
font tags
span tags
table structure, nested
more font tags
no correct use of h tags.

there's a reason for this too I think, the original google algo focuses on a few things, ahref link text, bold tags, h tags [which is why h tags do work by the way, they just don't work better or worse than a b or larg font tag], and font sizes. If I were to seriously try to optimize for google I wouldn't use any css, but I'm sick of writing my stuff just for google, that's getting old, they can catch up now any time they feel like it.

4:11 pm on Jan 7, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Another big factor is Geographic Profiling which MSN turns on and off every few months.

Our site is hosted in Canada, and it appears that on every other update, we either rank in the top 10 or in the hundreds.

Our major market is the USA, and it appears the MSN beta also penalize sites not hosted in the USA, rather than using on page crieteria to see if you serve the US market.

9:08 pm on Jan 7, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

MSN likes Meta, and puts a lot of weight on it.

All your hunches sound right to me besides this one.

I have a little hobby site that is completely ignored by Google (PR1), Yahoo gives it a little attention, but MSN Beta loves it to death. (Out of nowhere, I'm the #1 result on some reasonable key phrases. I guess I'm doing something right.)

My site has clean XHTML, CSS, is new, and has few inbound links. But I don't use meta.

The pages in question are dynamically generated, very clean, lightweight, and get straight to the point.

9:20 pm on Jan 7, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

<< My site has clean XHTML, CSS, is new, and has few inbound links. But I don't use meta.

The pages in question are dynamically generated, very clean, lightweight, and get straight to the point. >>

Timster, I'm glad to see someone else has this experience, that's exactly what I'm seeing, I can simply find no other way to explain some number one positions I'm getting on beta.

This could be part of what makes a lot of people really complain about their site's positioning, it's too early to say for sure, and I have to admit, this would make me a very happy person, since all my sites are done to a very high technical standard, but if this is true, all those seos who never bothered learning anything about html or css or standards might just be paying the price. Again, it's just too early to tell, and this could be wishful thinking. But that would be great if at least partly true, it would be funny to watch seos scramble to learn how to code properly rather than count keywords, stuff alt tags, create cloaked pages, build up fake link schemes etc.

There are definitely arguments for allowing good code to influence the serps, first of all it's easier to process good clean code than dirty bloated code, I've never seen, as you noted, google or yahoo give any particular preference to good code, quite the contrary seems to be the case in fact, although that could simply be a reflection of the fact that Google is currently basing far too much of a sites serp position on the physical age of the site/page. Which would tend to mean that the pages in question are just done in the old tag soup style, maybe no connection at all.

But all this could just be a guess that's wrong. Although it is interesting to see what I'm seeing noted by someone else. too early to tell.

12:35 am on Jan 8, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Great thread

I agree with a lot of the points made. Its fair to say i think that content and relevance are king on the MSN search.

Google is A) giving far to much weight to links (hence why results are full of old directory sites B) The older the site the more Google loves it and C) google doesnt update the SERPs often enough despite constant spidering.

MSN is a clear winner because A) as you say it doesnt give massive credit to links (after all with so many link farms and pages on the web why should it!) B) Its new and treats all sites as equal to start with (in Bill Gates own words search engines are small compared to what they will be in 5 years time)and C) MSN updates the SERPS every day.

Oh and MSN isnt sandboxing new sites and holding pages back to feed PPC - well not yet anyway!

Regarding meta tags - interesting, im using them and it could be helping, i figure it doesnt do any harm even if they are ignored, but sites without meta tags are still listing well. Content, titles and keywords in content are relevant.

1:36 pm on Jan 10, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Interesting thread.

Would just add that DMOZ (or the lack of it) has not held me back.

I have four sites. Three have DMOZ status and one
lost it about two years ago.

All of my sites do very well on Google and new MSN. In fact I have to pinch myself sometimes because the SERPS for my searches are so Google like.

A slight bias towards the "pointer" page rather than the "pointed to" in terms of keywords but other than that no major difference.

Back to DMOZ..no perceivable difference in performance for the site not listed in DMOZ versus the sites that are.

I think (well I would have to say "know" really based on my experience) that and ODP link is just another link these days.

This was in response to the first posters uncertanty about DMOZ having benefit.

11:20 pm on Jan 13, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

MSN likes Meta, and puts a lot of weight on it

There is some merrit to that. But, I have a site which has a #1 position in Google for a certain Keyword. I haven't got a clue why it is nr 1, since I never really targetted that keyword. In MSN Beta, it is nr. 100+ :-(. The odd thing is, that the topscoring sites in MSN beta have got worse meta-tags than me (even though I'm not targetting that keyword). Some are even broken!

In general, it looks like MSN Beta does something funny when scoring sites. Too be more exact, the keyword that I'm talking about here can be seen as an acronym. I'm not using it as such, but all the topscoring sites in MSN Beta seem very related to this acronym and it's meaning in general. The sites that are toplisted do not have a good keyword density (some are even awfull), do not have the keyword in their domain-name or url, sometime's not even in the title or meta-tags. Also, it doesn't to matter a whole lot if the site/page's a new or old or if they have a lot of backlinks.

It would appear to me that MSN Beta does something fuzzy when searching, e.g. it doesn't just look for the specific keyword you are searching for, but also seems to search for (in it's view) related keywords and score pages for a wide range of keywords...

1:32 am on Jan 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

yes, try this:
in msnbeta. The third result doesn't even have that term in it. And is about as bad a result as it can be. And as inappropriate, unless somebody is doing something like googlebombing that page from external links or something.

this is why I don't expect to see msn going live any time soon.

<< It would appear to me that MSN Beta does something fuzzy when searching, e.g. it doesn't just look for the specific keyword you are searching for, but also seems to search for (in it's view) related keywords and score pages for a wide range of keywords... >>

If you're right, I don't expect to see msn be giving google any serious competition in the near future. That's a stupid idea, but search engines have been trying to do that. If MSN tries something that dumb on their first release product they deserve to fail.

[edited by: Brett_Tabke at 3:20 am (utc) on Jan. 14, 2005]
[edit reason] no specific keywords - please reread the tos. We do NOT do adult discussions on WebmasterWorld. [/edit]

6:24 am on Jan 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Sorry for the keyword. That was not an adult 'discussion', that word has several different meanings, only one of which is 'adult', it was an example of a serious failure in their algo, however, the point is that for wordx, which has basically 3 different meanings, the third site in the msn beta returns does not have that word anywhere on the page. And in fact is the exact antithesis of the cruder meaning of that term. About as unrelated to that word as you could get. In fact, if I were that site and saw that result I would sue MSN.
2:31 pm on Jan 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

You might also want to reread TOS#24 [webmasterworld.com]
4:14 pm on Jan 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I started a new thread about some very odd MSN-beta results, but it is still pending review :-(

Basically, I think there are some serious flaws which that thread shows. One of them is that you can score high without even mentioning the specific keyword (e.g. the keyword is not anyware in the source of the page). Search on MSN-beta for an eighteen/twenty-one plus version of the word cat. (This is in no way intended as an adult discussion, it is just to show and let others see what awkerd results MSN Beta can return, and more importantly, understand why it has returned those results)
images.google.ca/com are #5 and #7!?

I also think they might be using website-statistics-pages to score outgoing links! That's just begging for referrer-spam and unrelated search-results.

5:44 pm on Jan 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Does MSN give you better ranking if you site is created in Front Page. Does it give you different search results if you aren't using their browser? Sorry but I just had to ask, I know how Mr. Gates is sometimes.
5:57 pm on Jan 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

I'm not seeing either frontpage favoritism, or any differences between browsers.

Testing with:
IE (6 and 5)

8:04 pm on Jan 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

What about the link text, both in backlinks and your internal linking structure? Can you find phrases that they beat you in msn, and compare on page factors for those pages?
8:06 pm on Jan 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

<< You might also want to reread TOS#24 >>

thanks, I'd missed that one.

9:47 pm on Jan 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

<<What about the link text, both in backlinks and your internal linking structure?>>

I can answer that pretty quickly:

Internal linking: The keyphrase in question is not used in any internal link. Period

Backlinks: MSN is only registering 32 backlinks at the moment (kinda funny, because Yahoo and Google are both reporting hundreds) - I found the keyphrase in question in exactly 2 of the backlinks.

I've been watching this thread since I first posted, but didn't want to jump on every post to answer it. here's a note or two on what's been questioned before:

META: People seem to be of two sides on this one, and for now, I'm going to stay on the "Meta makes a difference in MSN" side - For one, the description for the site when the search comes up is the same as from the "Meta name="description" tag. Any time I've see a SE use the meta description tag, I've seen some evidence that that SE is taking META into consideration in one way, shape, or form. As for MSN, it might not be as heavily considered as I first thought, but in all likelyhood, it's at the very least a "tie-breaker" consideration. All else being equal, the site with the meta is gonna win vs. the site that doesn't.

Old and Established vs. New Site: I haven't seen any disagreement on this, just concurrance. This might be the single biggest lesson to take away from this. The MSN database is new, so at least for the moment, the newcomers aren't facing the daunting task of going up against entrenched sites. Personally, I view this as a good thing. There are many, MANY old and established sites out there that are doing well in the other SEs, when there are newer sites in the same category that are beating the pants off them for relevance.

10:50 pm on Jan 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

The site that is number #1 for my keyword has a 50% keyword density in their meta tags (for description and keywords). All of their back links are from other sites that make up the "Computer One Network".

They have discussion forums that have some useful content. But mostly it's a bunch of interlinking websites (with different domain names) that are pure spam. They're making money from the ads.

Hmm... Google gives them a blank PR and no back links =)


10:58 pm on Jan 14, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I've noticed that MSN search seems to put a lot less weight on keyword domains than the other SEs do, and possibly a bit more on titles.
12:09 am on Jan 15, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

The theory that MSN beta likes clean code fits well with my experience.

I have two sites - the first I took over, it was a real mess code-wise, and I cleaned it up somewhat but not totally (they didnt pay me enough and it works).

The second website, for the same company, is modelled like the first site only I wrote it from the ground up and it is clean and neat.

Metas, keyword density, navigation all similar white hat seo. The first site has way more backlinks.

And guess what - msn loves the second site and finds the first site just ok.

Its only one example. But it would explain something that has been bugging me for a month.

11:04 pm on Jan 15, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I'm sorry bout i really have to disagree with you all. For every instance of one of you saying that msn "likes clean code" I can show you numerous sites that are disasters, yet are ranking well. SPAM is out of control. There's a guy who ranks nowhere in google or yahoo who's in our field. the reason why is that he's penalised. the guy blatently spams, cloaks, garbage link pages, doorways galore. heck I know one method right now that will get your site doing very well. spamming the new msn is an absolute joke. When you see pages that you use for a link campaign on a site, outperforming the actual site...you know something's wrong.
11:16 pm on Jan 15, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Does MSN give you better ranking if you site is created in Front Page.

Just about every website I've redesigned was originally designed in FrontPage which results in code bloat and outdated and deprecated code. So much for FrontPage.

11:24 pm on Jan 15, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Hey mikec, I have to agree, I think the clean code thing is just optimism, after all, it would be nice to see a search engine reward content and good code, but I now see that we are afterall talking about MS here.

So it's probably something completely unrelated, unless it's a very simple thing like percent of page content versus page html, but even that I think is wishful thinking on my part.

11:38 pm on Jan 15, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I see so many different and contradicting things. I really think the algo is far too complicated to pin down to one or two things. Hey, but at least we know spam works! Just setup a seperate site for msn (because if you optomise for msn you will probably tank for most other SEs) and SPAM away!
3:28 am on Jan 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Wow, my site is #1 for my main keyword and #4 for the plural on beta (UK), I didn't even target the plural (although it appears occasionally).

As the site is new and has few links (and I mean few) I have a fairly good idea of what works in this instance.

1. All pages on the site are AAA compliant.
2. All pages are below 15k including code and text.
3. All content is hand written and spellchecked.
4. A variety of industry terms are used naturally throught the site, no artificial additional use of terms apart from the main keyword in the title and description.
5. 40 pages of content when other sites struggle to get 5 on the area I cover (a service).
6. Few, low PR links from pages 100% on topic. (other companies providing the same service)
7. Linking on the site has the keyword used as part of the link to the homepage as it forms part of the site name.

As for when beta serves live results in the UK, I can't wait.

P.S. I fooled around with going to US and UK homepages on MSN, doing a search on the US one shows beta results, is this normal? if it is normal then these discussions are much more relevant to todays end users than I thought.

3:28 am on Jan 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Doing some searching on very specific/odd/dubious/etc. keywords (started a thread about it, but I think it is not allowed), you can indeed see thay use a wide variety of algorithm's to score page's. Though is doesn't produce bad results, it does seem to make a few major misses every now and then.

On thing that I think MSN should not do, is score pages by server-searcher location. Because my server resides in the Netherlands, I am nowhere in MSN US/MSN beta! Even though some sites are inernationally targetted :(

9:41 pm on Jan 17, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Here's a big clue - our site was ranking reasonably on MSN Beta's first page until we added an H1 tag - boom! Up to #1 for a host of targetted keyword phrases. The rest of the on-page and backlink factors were already in it's favour - this was the final piece of the puzzle.

In response to other conjecture in this post: It's a new domain, has a lot of backlinks, is hosted in the UK, is a large file.

7:21 am on Jan 18, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Great thread and a lot of good analysis grelmar. I just wanted to weigh in on the “meta” discussion to explain what we do in this area. We do consider meta description when generating contextual descriptions and we recommend that if you have relevant descriptions for your site that you use them on your pages. On the other hand we do not consider the meta keyword tag. The reason we do not consider the data in this tag is it has a long history of being spammed.

Hope this helps.

- msndude (msd)

9:17 am on Jan 18, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Thanks MSNdude, that does help, actually.

I'm still a bit baffled why my site is where it is in the SERPS (not complaining, though).

And I must say, I like the fact that META description is being used. It's a nice way of putting a condensed "search engine friendly" description of my site up, instead of the "first few lines" rip that comes up in other engines, which forces me (and I'd guess others) into some slightly unnatural design in order to accomodate SE pecadillos.

I hope your developpers have figured a way to separate valid, relevant, descriptions from misleading or spammy ones.

This 63 message thread spans 3 pages: 63

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