SEO experts often forget that there are three major search engines. While there is no doubt that Google is the number one with the most searches and Yahoo! manages to get about a quarter of the market, MSN has not retired yet. It holds about 10-15 percent of the searches (according to some sources even less – about 5%) but it has a loyal audience that can’t be reached through the other two major search engines, so if you plan a professional SEO campaign, you can’t afford to skip MSN. In a sense getting high rankings in MSN is similar to getting high rankings for less popular keywords – because competition is not that tough you might be able to get enough visitors from MSN only in comparison to the case when you have optimised for a more popular search engine.
Although optimising for MSN is different from optimising for Google and Yahoo!, there are still common rules that will help you to rank high in any search engine. As a rule, if you rank well in Google, chances are that you will rank well in Yahoo! (if you are interested in the tips and tricks for optimizing for Yahoo!, you want to have a look at the Optimising for Yahoo! Article) and MSN as well. The opposite is not true, however. If you rank well in MSN, there is no guarantee that you’ll do the same in Google. So, when you optimize for MSN, keep an eye on your Google ranking as well. It’s no good to top MSN and be nowhere in Google (the opposite is more acceptable, if you need to make the choice).
But why is this so? The answer is simple – the MSN algorithm is different and that is why, even if the same pages were indexed, the search results will vary.
The MSN Algorithm
As already mentioned, it is the different MSN algorithm that leads to such drastic results in ranking. Otherwise, MSN, like all search engines, first spiders the pages on the Web, then indexes them in its database and after that applies the algorithm to generate the pages with the search results. So, the first step in optimising for MSN is the same as for the other search engines – to have a spiderable site. (Have a look at Search Engine Spider Simulator to see how spiders see your site). If your site is not spiderable, then you don’t have even a hypothetical chance to top the search results.
There is quite a lot of speculation about the MSN algorithm. Looking at the search results MSN delivers, it is obvious that its search algorithm is not as sophisticated as Google’s, or even Yahoo!’s and many SEO experts agree that the MSN search algorithm is years behind its competitors. So, what can you do in this case? Optimize as you did for Google a couple of years ago? You are not far from the truth, though actually is is not that simple.
One of the most important differences is that MSN still relies heavily on metatags, as explained below. None of the other major search engines uses metatags that heavily anymore. It is obvious that metatags give SEO experts a great opportunity for manipulating search results. Maybe metatags are the main reason for the inaccurate search results that MSN often produces.
The second most important difference between MSN and the other major search engines is their approach to keywords. Well, for MSN keywords are very, very important, too, but unlike Google, for MSN onpage factors are dominating, while offpage factors (like backlinks for example), are still of minor importance. Well, it is a safe bet that the importance of backlinks will be changed in the future but for now they are not a primary factor for high rankings.
Keywords, Keywords, Keywords
It is hardly surprising that keywords are the most important item for MSN. What is surprising is that MSN relies too much on them. It is very easy to fool MSN – just artificially inflate your keyword density, put a couple of keywords in file names (and even better – in domain names) and around the top of the page and you are almost done for MSN. But if you do the above-mentioned black hat practices, your joy of topping MSN will not last long because, unless you provide separate pages that are optimized for Google, your stuffed pages might pretty well get you banned from Google. If you decide to have separate pages for Google and MSN, first, it it hardly worth the trouble, and second, the risk of duplicate content penalty can’t be ignored.
So, what is the catch? The catch is that if you try to polish your site for MSN and stuff it with keywords, this might get you into trouble with Google, which certainly is worse than not ranking well in MSN. But if you optimize wisely, it is more likely than not that you will rank decently in Google and perform well in Yahoo! and MSN as well.
Having meaningful metatags never hurts but with MSN this is even more important because its algorithm still uses them as a primary factor in calculating search results. Having well-written (not stuffed) metatags will help you with MSN and some other minor search engines, while at the same time well-written metatags will not get you banned from Google.
The Description metatag is very important:
MSNBot reads its content and based on that (in addition to keywords found on page) judges how to classify your site. So if you leave this tag empty (i.e. CONTENT=””), you have missed a vital chance to be noticed by MSN. There is no evidence that MSN uses the other metatags in its algorithm that is why leaving the description metatag empty is even more unforgivable.