Microsoft says MSN's new look is ready to share.
Since last year, the company has been testing new designs for the venerable portal, including one that features a cleaner, more video-heavy look for the site. Over the coming days, Microsoft is rolling out the new look to all MSN visitors in the United States.
Although portals like MSN, AOL, and the Yahoo home page are sometimes scoffed at by the digerati, such sites remain an important generator of searches and display advertising dollars.
"MSN plays a number of critical roles for the company, and certainly for the Online Services Division," Senior Vice President Yusuf Mehdi said in an interview this week. First off, it is the primary relationship we have with close to half a billion customers on a worldwide basis who come once a month to an MSN property."
Microsoft sells a lot of display ads to companies that want to reach that large audience and also gets a lot of its search traffic via MSN.
"A very large percent of our traffic for search actually comes from people who use MSN as their home page," Mehdi said. "Now, that's changing as Bing starts to catch on, and people start to come to it organically and/or make it their primary way to search. But even today the bulk of our revenue from search, and the bulk of our users from search come from the MSN home page."
Overall, MSN executives said the new page not only got decent acceptance, but also has been boosting the site's performance, with users both visiting more often and doing more searches.
"Both ticked up significantly," said Bob Visse, general manager of MSN. In particular, Microsoft said it has seen a greater than 10 percent increase in the number of searches on the new site as compared to the old site.
"This particular design just makes Bing pop a lot more," Visse said. Data also showed that people were using Bing more in general over time.
Analyst Greg Sterling, who is also an editor at Search Engine Land, noted that about half of Microsoft's searches come via the MSN home page.
"That's a really critical property in terms of establishing and exposing people to Bing," he said. One of Microsoft's big challenges in competing with Google is people are just so familiar with its search experience. "That's one of hurdles that Microsoft is trying to get over and MSN helps them to do that somewhat."
As for the new look, Sterling said Microsoft seems to have done a good job. "I think it improves the site and they've done some interesting things with their local edition."
On the local side, Microsoft is tapping structured data to offer things like gas prices and traffic, in addition to expected things like movie times, weather, and news.
Microsoft is also hoping the new design keeps MSN current with those current users, although Mehdi said the company is also hoping to attract a few more younger people and heavy Web users to visit MSN.
The new look does away with dozens of links that used to fill the site, opting instead for a clean white design focused on large images. Microsoft briefly tested a more radical makeover in Brazil, although it found the design was too big a shift.
"It was too radical, even for that audience," Visse said in a November interview. "It's not going to ship for a final release."
The company has even made some subtle changes since November, adding a blue gradient near the top. Visse said that the change was made in part to break up the plain white page, but also because users associate blue with MSN and the design actually produced a statistically significant increase in searches.
Microsoft has been mindful of past lessons, such as when it tried to redesign Hotmail several years back to better compete with Yahoo and Google's Gmail. The changes, though appreciated by some, proved too big a shift for others and Microsoft was forced to scale back the revamp.
This time around, though, Microsoft did a lot of testing in international markets before it started the U.S. testing, which has resulted in 10 percent of U.S. users in recent weeks getting the site with the new look.
"We tested a lot of designs," Visse said. "We didn't want to get shocked that we were way off."
The company has also added some features since November. For example, users can now watch HD video inside of the MSN home page, assuming you have Silverlight installed (those who don't have Silverlight can still see video using Adobe Flash, just not in high definition).
MSN also boasts a "trend watch" section that pulls information from Twitter to generate hot topics with real-time posts from Twitter. MSN also allows one to see their Twitter, Windows Live, and Facebook feeds in the bottom right-hand corner.
Right now, Visse said, Twitter allows for some nice features, but there's far more powerful use that can be made of real-time sentiments down the road.
"I really view this as sort of a first step of taking social relevancy and using that as a content element on the MSN home page," Visse said.