How MSN Search Works

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The articles below appeared in the Search Engine Update newsletter and have important information not yet added to this page. Please review them to find out about any new developments. Further below, you will also find a list of other articles about this search engine that may be of interest.


MSN Search provides users with paid listings that come primarily from Overture. Editorial listings come primarily from LookSmart. Supplementary editorial listings come from Inktomi. This page covers the major search data sources mentioned and how your site may appear within them.

Featured Sites

After performing a search, the results page often starts with a section called “Featured Sites.” Sites are listed here because they are part of the MSN network, are major MSN advertisers or in some cases have been selected because MSN’s editors believe they are good editorial matches to a search.

More information about becoming an advertiser in this section can be found from MSN via this link. Feature Sites text links are typically sold on a yearly basis with a $75,000 minimum spend.

As for becoming an editorial pick, there’s is no way to submit your site for this. More about the work of editors can be found in the MSN Search’s Human Editors section, below.

Sponsored Sites

Near the top of the page is usually a “Sponsored Sites” section. This contains paid listings from Overture. A separate “Sponsored Sites” box usually also appears along the right-hand side of the search page. This is also filled with paid listings from Overture. The article below explains in more detail exactly how Overture listings are placed in these two areas:

MSN Expands Overture Ads
SearchDay, Sept. 18, 2003

To learn about being listed in Overture, see the How Overture Works page.

Web Directory Sites

The “Web Directory Sites” section of the results page usually provides most of the listings you will get from MSN Search, especially in response to popular searches. The listings in this area generally come from LookSmart. Thus, to appear in this section, you need to be listed with LookSmart, as explained on the How LookSmart Works page.

Be aware that MSN Search uses its own ranking algorithm to sift through LookSmart’s data. This means that the results in this section may be ranked much differently than if you perform the same search at LookSmart.

In general, your listing will be more likely to rank well within this section if you make use of the exact terms you want to be found for within the listing’s title and description. Following the tips on the Submitting To The Yahoo Directory page will also help you in submitting to LookSmart and in turn perhaps do better in MSN Search’s LookSmart powered-results.

Ranking can also be influenced by MSN Search’s human editors, which is covered in the MSN Search’s Human Editors section, below.

Multiple Listings Advantage

If your LookSmart listing doesn’t rank well for a particular term in the Web Directory Sites section, your first thought will probably be to try and change it, so that it will better please MSN Search’s ranking algorithm.

If you are only going to pay to have one listing within LookSmart, this may be a good tactic to try. LookSmart allows you to pay a small, one-off fee to alter a commercial listing. However, be aware that MSN Search might refine its ranking algorithm at any time. If this happens, your site might drop in the rankings — leaving you wanting to get your description changed again.

A better solution, for those who can afford it, is to obtain multiple listings. LookSmart’s LookListings paid inclusion program allows you to submit many different listings.

How does this help? Think of it this way. If you buy a lottery ticket, you get one chance of winning the lottery. If you have several tickets, then you have several chances of winning. The same is true with listings at LookSmart, when it comes to ranking well in MSN Search’s Web Directory Sites area. The more listings you have, the more chances you have at ranking well for a particular search — assuming that you make use of the key terms you want to be found for in these listings.

For instance, imagine that you got pages from your online shoe store listed in LookSmart in three different places, with these descriptions:

Super Shoes World Online
Sells a variety of shoes, sandals, hiking boots
and athletic footwear.

Shoes Advice Center
Advice on how to select shoes for running marathons,
playing tennis and even mountain hiking.

Super Shoes World Online: Hiking Boots Section
Hiking boots from major shoe manufacturers are sold here,
as well as a trail guide to popular hiking destinations.

The first two make use of the word “shoes” in both their titles and descriptions, giving you a chance of doing well for the word “shoes.” However, the first one also targets terms such as “sandals,” “hiking boots” and “athletic footwear,” because those are all mentioned in the description. Meanwhile, the second one targets different words, such as “marathons,” “tennis” and “hiking.” The third one targets terms relating to boots and hiking. In combination, they serve to broaden the range of terms you might get found for, compared to having only one listing.

If you consider making the jump to the LookListings paid inclusion program, you’ll need to compare the expense to the cost of purchasing multiple listings through Overture, in order to appear in the Sponsored Sites section. Similarly, you’ll also need to weigh it against the paid inclusion program that Inktomi operates, which may help you appear in the Web Pages section described below.

Web Pages

Sometimes MSN Search fails to find many or even any matches from its LookSmart database to include in its Web Directory Sites section. In these instances, MSN Search “falls back” to providing listings that come from crawling the web. These are shown in the “Web Pages” section of the results page.

You generally will only see Web Pages listings appear on the first page of results for more unusual or obscure searches. For popular searches, you’re likely only going to encounter them if you go beyond the first page of results — sometimes well beyond the first page.

Web Pages listings come from the Inktomi search engine, so to appear here, you need to be listed with Inktomi. See the How Inktomi Works page for more information on this. That page also explains that MSN Search, like all Inktomi partners, can applies its own ranking criteria to Inktomi’s information. This means that just because you rank well at one Inktomi-powered search engine (such as HotBot), you may still rank differently at MSN Search.

MSN is developing its own crawler technology that will eventually replace listings from Inktomi. This is not expected to be ready any time in the near future, even though the crawler is currently active. For more about the MSN Crawler, see the July 2003 Microsoft’s MSN Search To Build Crawler-Based Search Engine article from Search Engine Watch.

Popular Topics

After performing a search at MSN Search, you may be shown “Popular Topics” below the search box, on the results page. These topics are clickable links designed to help users narrow in more specifically on a particular topic.

If you click on a Popular Topics link, you’ll get different results presented relevant to that topic, even though the original word you searched on will remain the same. Behind the scenes, the link that was selected transmitted other information compiled by MSN editors that helped produce a more refined list relevant to the topic you chose.

Broaden Your Search

After performing a search at MSN Search, you may be shown “Broaden Your Search” links at the bottom of the results page. These links are designed to help users look more widely in new directions for information.

Each topical link corresponds to a particular category at LookSmart category. However, MSN Search might rank the listings in its own categories slightly differently than LookSmart.

MSN Search’s Human Editors

For many popular queries on MSN Search, its editors may have hand-picked good sites to come up well at the top of the Featured Sites and Web Directory Sites sections. They may even have rewritten some site descriptions, which is why you may find your site has a different description than what appears at LookSmart itself. That’s also a good sign, as it means you’ve probably been hand-picked as a good response to a particular query.

This human intervention is also why you may not understand why certain sites appear in response to particular searches, if the search words don’t appear in the description. MSN editors may have manually placed a site into the top results.

Sorry — there is no mechanism for contacting the editors to suggest that your site deserves priority treatment in the Featured Sites or Web Directory Sites sections. Instead, MSN Search says that good advice is to ensure that you have a well-linked site with outstanding content. If so, then you may be found by MSN editors, if they are looking for a good site to feature for a particular search query.

Also, MSN Search editors are likely to consult their own Web Directory Sites and Web Pages listings when considering sites for their Featured Sites section. That means it will be advantageous to be listed in these areas, as explained below.

Shopping Results

At the bottom of the search results page, there will usually be a link called “Shopping Results.” Those who click on this link get results that come from the MSN eShop shopping site. Thus, for your site to appear in these listings, you’d need to be listed with MSN eShop. For partnership and advertising information from MSN eShop, follow this link.

Browser Tie-In

Many people who search using features within Microsoft’s popular Internet Explorer browser get back results in some way from MSN Search. The article below provides a closer look at this relationship. Note that information about the RealNames system and integration is no longer valid, as that system closed in the middle of 2002.

Searching & Navigating Via Internet Explorer
The Search Engine Update, April 2, 2002

Also see the ABCs & URLs page for articles about new companies offering “keyword navigation” integration into Internet Explorer. Typically, these don’t work unless special software is installed — and some resellers have made false claims about a relationship with Microsoft. Microsoft continues to say that it has no relationship with any company to resell keywords in the style that RealNames once did.

Porn Results

If someone searches on MSN Search for a porn or sexually-explicit term, the service will show a link suggesting to try the search at Because of this, if you are an adult web site aiming to be found for such terms, you might to consider getting listed with, which can be found via the URL below:

(You’ll need to copy and paste the URL above into your browser, if you wish to reach I’ve done this because there is some sexually explicit content there, and I don’t want people accidentally clicking through and being surprised.)

Non-US Editions

Information covered above on this page applies to the US-oriented MSN Search site. However, MSN Search also maintains a variety of non-US editions. They can be found via this link: MSN Search Worldwide.

Search Engine Watch does not detail information for each of these country-specific editions. However, here is some basic information that may be helpful.

Several non-US editions make use of country-specific editions of LookSmart. For example, a search at MSN Search UK would bring back results from LookSmart’s UK listings. Because of this, to appear at MSN Search UK, it would be best to submit to LookSmart UK rather than the LookSmart US edition. The same is true for many other countries. See the How LookSmart Works page for more information on submitting to its regional sites.

Not all of MSN Search’s editions use LookSmart. Some use local directories. For example, MSN Search Austria, Germany and Switzerland receive their directory listings from Allesklar.

As for crawler-based “Web Pages” results, these tend to come from Inktomi, as is the case with MSN Search. Finally, Sponsored Results, where offered, tend to come from local editions of Overture. Here’s a fairly recent article about this:

Overture Extends MSN Deal Abroad, July 7, 2003

MSN extends its agreement with Overture to provide paid listings for sites in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea through December 2004.

Finally, be sure to read the More About Countries And Languages for general tips on selecting the right domain name and language to help your site be accepted by regional editions of any major search engine.

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