On the heels of big redesigns at rival portals Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) and AOL (NYSE: TWX), Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) is unveiling what it is calling the most significant overhaul of MSN.com in more than a decade. The home page’s iconic blue background and long lists of links are being replaced with an airy, news-site style design that puts a sharp emphasis on six key verticals: news, entertainment, finance, sports, lifestyle and local (Click on image to the left for several screenshots. The site can also be previewed here). U.S. executive producer Scott Moore tells us that the goal is to get the site’s 100 million monthly visitors to come more often.
While traffic is up over the last year, Moore says that users often said MSN.com was cluttered and outdated. In an interview with paidContent this spring, MSN Corporate VP Erik Jorgensen hinted at many of the changes, saying that the site needed “a new look and feel.”
The overhaul will give MSN a fresh look to match rival portals Yahoo and AOL, which have both overhauled their home pages during the last year. One difference: While AOL and Yahoo both put a big emphasis on letting users customize third-party content on their sites, Microsoft’s design does so to a lesser extent. For instance, users can still only check their Hotmail e-mail accounts from MSN.com. And while MSN users can now update their Twitter, Facebook and Windows Live statuses from the site, those are their only options. Asked about the reasoning, Moore says “we know for a fact that most the vast majority of people will not actually customize,” although some additional third tie-ins are still to come.
He also says that MSN is working on technology that will eventually optimize headlines for each user. For instance, if a reader has a greater tendency to read entertainment articles those articles would be more likely to show up on his or her home page.
Some highlights from the redesign:
— Local: Like its competitors, Microsoft sees a big opportunity in the local space, which Moore says is “underdeveloped” online. But unlike AOL, for instance, which is investing heavily in original content, Microsoft is positioning itself more as a local aggregator, pulling feeds from partners. A new page — the “Local edition” — lets users see local weather, traffic, news stories, and restaurant reviews in one place. “There are all kinds of local information and data (on the web), but it’s mostly in these vertical services, so Yelp for restaurant reviews, Zillow for real estate, MSN Movies for movie times,” Moore said. “The vision we had for local was really to take all this news and data — news, sports, weather — which is all across the network — pull it together in one integrated dashboard for your life.”
— Search: The online division’s top goal, according to Moore, is to build Bing’s share of search queries. So, the redesign incorporates the search engine throughout. For instance, an article on the home page on some sort of celebrity news may now include a link directing users to the search engine for more information. The new page also features a list of most frequently searched terms. Even MSN’s new logo has been designed to better fit with the Bing typeset. Already, Moore says, MSN is the biggest traffic driver to Bing, accounting for nearly 45 percent of its traffic. However, he says seventy percent of MSN users still use other search engines.
— Social networking: A new module on the home page lets users update their status on Facebook, Windows Live, and Twitter (The Twitter tie-in is notable since the new Yahoo home page does not give users that option). Moore says it makes sense to include the functionality since so many MSN users are already checking those sites multiple times each day.
— Video: Moore says that video is also a big emphasis, noting that the previous iteration of the home page hadn’t done enough to showcase it. Multiple links on the new home page, therefore, will promote videos from MSN partners like Fox Sports. Microsoft is also planning to introduce an “HD video experience” next year.
The new site also puts more emphasis on the main ad on the home page, which now stands out against the page’s new white background. Moore said that some advertisers had complained that the third-party apps that Yahoo introduced in its own redesign cover up the main ad on that page, something that MSN’s design avoids.
Microsoft rolled out the new site only in the U.S. (A spokeswoman says many other MSN markets have already launched their own new home pages recently). Starting this evening, between one and two percent of MSN users will see the new home page. That percentage will then rise to about 10 percent and stay at that level for some time. Only next year will all of the site’s U.S. users see the new look.
One other thing to note: For now, only the home page portal itself has a new design, which sometimes ends up creating odd juxtapositions between the new and old looks. Individual portals will get their own facelifts over the coming quarters, Moore says, adding that it would have been “herculean” to overhaul the entire network at once.
Here’s the release: