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Microsoft connects Net properties

The giant adds pull-down menus to its sites to link to its other Web properties in an effort to gain traffic and ad dollars.

    Here's just one of the hard lessons Microsoft learned on the Web this year: money might buy a lot, but it can't buy love and apparently, it can't buy an audience, either.

    That's why the software giant finds itself in the same situation as everyone else trying to make it on the Web, constantly rejiggering its strategy to find a way to turn its huge investment into returns.

    Earlier this month, Microsoft added pull-down menus to several of its sites with links to all its Web properties in order to create what people in the industry love to call "synergy."

    For example, a user who logs onto the Sidewalk site sees a roll bar that refers him or her to 16 other Microsoft sites, ranging from MSN.com to CarPoint, all under the "Microsoft Network" heading.

    Emily Green, an analyst at Forrester Research, simply calls it "strategy."

    "Their strategy has been updated numerously just like everyone else," Green said. Its latest strategy, in keeping with the rest of the Net, has been to increasingly move its products out into the "free zone" where it can try to generate hits that will translate into ad dollars.

    The new pull-down menus help reinforce the concept that Microsoft can be thought of as a centralized home on the Web, similar to Yahoo or Microsoft Network's primary competitor, America Online. AOL in the past several months also has been moving content on to the Web where it can be viewed by anyone on the Internet, rather than just by its members.

    MSN's strategy from the beginning has been to keep its money-generating sites, such as its online travel agency Expedia or CarPoint, out in the free space of the Web and to keep its other properties behind closed subscription doors, where only paying members could see it.

    But in the past several months, it has shifted that strategy to move more and more of its free content out onto the Web to garner hits that would in turn generate what has become the primary mechanism for making money on the Net: advertising.

    "What Forrester has been figuring out about media properties in the online space is, you have to think of people that visit you as virtual subscribers," Green said. "You need to cultivate repeat visits--and that is more important than anything."

    Like everyone, Microsoft hopes to dominate the Web, and linking its sites together seems only natural. In addition, Microsoft will be adding its own search engine and free email that will give it leverage in competing with some of the strongest sites on the Net: search engines including Yahoo and Excite. The search giants have added content and free email to further their positions as destinations on the Web.

    But Microsoft also could face some unique disadvantages from the linking strategy--precisely because it is Microsoft.

    While many companies have new name brands or name brands associated with established media properties, Microsoft's very advantage--its strong brand name--could work against it. (See related story)

    While many people trust in the company when it comes to software, they are more wary of doing so when it comes to online content such as news, product reviews, and local city guides, a service provided at Sidewalk. In fact, some have suggested that Microsoft should play down its ownership of Sidewalk because it might discourage people from using the service.

    The jury, however, is still out.

    And the bottom line remains the same: being a success on the Net means drawing traffic, gaining audience, and getting repeat visitors.

    If nothing else, Microsoft has shown it is willing to stick it out and continue to try new strategies in order to gain that, well, synergy.