New MSN Homepage Begins Full Roll-Out — With Customized Headlines, More Local

After a month-long delay, Microsoft’s overhaul of the MSN homepage is going live to the site’s 100 million users over the next two weeks. Perhaps the three most significant of the 30 updates Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) has made since announcing that a redesign was coming to MSN last November:

Headlines on the page will now be customized based on user behavior, so, for instance, people who tend to be more interested in entertainment news will be more likely to see those type of stories. The page’s new local edition — which features local weather, traffic, news stories, and restaurant reviews in one place — will now also include local blog posts and Tweets overlaid on a map. And Microsoft’s Bing search engine is given even more prominence than in the initial plans; the search box at the top of the page includes the words ‘web search’ — in bright orange.

Microsoft had initially introduced the design to about 10 percent of MSN homepage users this fall, but the full roll-out, scheduled for late January, was delayed in part in order to avoid overlap with the Olympics and the Super Bowl. Click-through rates to content on the new page were also reportedly down. But MSN Executive Producer Scott Moore tells us that testing has shown single-digit increases in click-through rates to content on the page, as well as double-digit increases in click-through rates to the search box. As for ads, he wouldn’t provide data but said that advertisers were pleased because the new page gives their ads “more pop.”

Indeed, the overhaul of the MSN homepage is visually much more radical than the recent redesigns at rivals AOL (NYSE: AOL) and Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO). The site’s design — which for years has featured an iconic blue background and long lists of links — has been replaced with an airy, news-style design. During our conversation, I asked Moore whether he was worried about a possible user backlash (and to judge from the comments left on our previous posts about the redesign there’s some very vocal opposition from long-time users). While Moore said it was “certainly possible,” he said that MSN had a “pretty good handle of what the audience feels about it” because it has been in testing for so many months.

Take a look at the new page here.

And here’s Microsoft’s announcement:

MSN Homepage Launch Begins Today

New MSN Homepage offers search, news, local and social networking