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Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft launching search tool in ad blitz

Seattle Times technology reporter

Microsoft's MSN division unveiled the final version of its search engine last night and is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to advertise the service as the place to find precise answers quickly.

Starting today, the company said, it will launch a campaign to market MSN Search to 90 percent of consumers in the U.S. with a blitz of advertisements on television and the Web and in print publications. MSN is also looking to grab some attention on Microsoft's Redmond campus today by displaying cars, a tiki hut and a herd of alpacas.

MSN has also redesigned its home page at www.msn.com, cutting back on the number of links for a cleaner look and giving the search bar more prominence.

Every move is calculated to make MSN a more formidable contender in the competitive search-engine business, which is now dominated by Google and, to a lesser extent, Yahoo! MSN, firmly in third place, has been such a search unknown that even its own Web users went to Google and other rivals with search requests.

Microsoft executives have repeatedly admitted to missteps in search. Just last week, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, company Chairman Bill Gates summed up Microsoft's past approach bluntly.

"We were stupid as hell," he said, according to a report from Dow Jones Newswires. MSN debuted a test version of its search engine in November but was still using technology from Yahoo! to run its main search engine.

MSN will drop that technology as it moves its own search engine into use in markets around the world. It will continue to use a separate technology from Yahoo! that serves up some of the text-based advertisements on its search-results page.

MSN is trying to be more competitive in the search business by using one tool its rivals don't have: Encarta encyclopedia. In the past, it had made a limited amount of Encarta content available free as part of its search results. The rest was available only to paying subscribers.

Now, MSN has opened up its entire Encarta library free. If, for example, a searcher asks what Michelangelo is known for, the results include an answer ("Painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel") as well as a link to Encarta for more information about Michelangelo.

"Moving this category from links to answers is the thing we are going to be laser-focused on," said Christopher Payne, a corporate vice president of MSN.

Microsoft still hopes that people will buy the Encarta software for additional tools not included in the search engine, such as a guide that helps children finish their homework.

The Encarta features will make a huge difference in setting MSN Search apart from rivals, said Charlene Li, an analyst tracking the search industry for Forrester.

"Here is this objective, fact-based information that you need," she said. "It's really hard to find that objective point of view" online.

The new search engine has many of the same features that appeared in the test version. Those include links from the search-results page to MSN's music service, and an ability to search for Web pages and online listings related to a particular city.

MSN isn't saying exactly how much it plans to spend to advertise its search engine. Payne said the amount is in the ballpark of the top-dollar advertising campaigns in MSN's history. Those have run hundreds of millions of dollars.

The substantial advertising budget is necessary, Li said. Many users see MSN's search box every day but don't use it.

"[MSN] is countering two very big brands in the marketplace: Yahoo! and Google," she said. "If they want people to come back for MSN Search or try it for the first time, they need to make people aware of it."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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