Microsoft looks to give MSN fresh wings

The software maker plans to overhaul its decade-old portal this fall, but must strike a balance between modernizing the site and not alienating its core fans.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read

Microsoft is testing a revamped version of its MSN home page in France that features fewer channels, more video, and a direct connection to a user's Hotmail in-box. Microsoft

Although most of the discussion of Microsoft's online business has been around Bing, its new search engine, Microsoft is also working on a fall revamp for MSN, its decade-old portal site.

Though often overlooked by Microsoft watchers, the MSN portal remains critically important to Microsoft's online business. Its home page is the crown jewel of its display ad business and MSN is also responsible for about half of the company's Internet search traffic. And, despite the notion that portals are passe, Microsoft says its research shows that 37 percent of Internet users still rely on a portal as an important source of information.

"It's not for everyone, but for a good chunk of the market, it's a way people can make sense of the Internet," MSN Vice President Erik Jorgensen said in an interview this week.

MSN through the years (images)

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To stay relevant, Microsoft is working on overhauling MSN in a few key ways. In particular, the company is trying to add a limited amount of personalization as well as more social media features. Microsoft is also trying to downplay the myriad of channels that date back to the days when its portal, like Yahoo and AOL, aimed to be a directory of the Internet.

But, as it rethinks the MSN site, Microsoft must also tread lightly, mindful of its experience a few years back when it tried to radically alter its Hotmail service. The changes, intended to enable the service to compete with Gmail and Yahoo, proved too jarring for many of its users.

Indeed, the MSN home page, which dates back to 1998 when Microsoft grouped its bevy of Web properties under the MSN name, has changed remarkably little in recent years.

On a number of occasions over the years, Microsoft has tried to freshen up the image of the portal. Back in 2000, Microsoft added the butterfly logo amid a big ad campaign.

In 2006, the company lured MSNBC's John Nicol out of retirement in its most recent major effort to revitalize the site.

Much of that effort centered on bolstering the site's video content. Microsoft dipped its toe into original programming and also brought some key events to MSN, including the Live Earth concert and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Under his tenure, Microsoft also announced Soapbox, an effort to compete in the user generated content space with YouTube.

Soapbox, however, proved less than successful and Jorgensen said this week that Microsoft plans to scale back the site, possibly eliminating the ability of users to post their own videos directly to the site.

Getting personal
One of the areas that Microsoft continues to tinker with is just how much to personalize the site. This has been a tricky balance for Microsoft. It has offered products such as its Start.com (and later Live.com) page, which began as a blank canvas onto which users could plug all kinds of content modules. However, that proved to have only niche appeal.

"There is a limit to how many people are interested in putting in that level of work," said Jorgensen, who assumed the top MSN spot last year after Nicol left the post. Jorgensen also continues to run Microsoft's local and mobile search efforts.

This time around, MSN is relying on Microsoft's software algorithms and machine learning to do "clustering" of content based on a user's demographics.

Microsoft is also trying to use software, rather than humans, to help choose which stories get placed where on MSN. Instead of having its editors update the pages four times a day, the revamped MSN will see things shifting nearly constantly based on the data the company is getting back on which stories are clicking with users.

At the end of the day, Jorgensen hopes to create a site that has more software know-how than Yahoo and is more human than Google.

Some of the MSN changes are already being tested in various parts of the world. In France, for example, the software maker is testing the new user interface with fewer channels and more prominent video (see image at top of post). In Brazil, a far more radical remake of MSN features a social media bar where people can drag videos to share them with their circle of friends (see image at bottom of post).

Microsoft is still figuring out how drastic to make the changes and how gradually it needs to roll them out.

The software maker is also toying with how much to segment its audience. For example, the company has an MSN Today screen it shows users as they log into Windows Live Messenger. For the past three months, Microsoft has been showing four different screens depending on whether a user is male or female and whether he or she is over or under 25.

In the U.S., the company also offered some users a choice of viewing the standard MSN home page when they go to the main portal or if they would instead prefer an entertainment-only version.

"It can't be one size fits all," Jorgensen said.

In Brazil, Microsoft is testing a more radical overhaul of the MSN site, featuring a social media bar that users can use to share video with their social circle. Microsoft