Microsoft’s MSN has been a good hodgepodge that gets 100 million users a month. But it hasn’t had a serious redo for 10 years. So the question posed to a new team brought in to redo the site was: How do you make the site stand out and really help users?
Site leader Scott Moore and Cyrus Krohn, a top lieutenant, had previously worked together at Yahoo and even teamed on a business plan for a local news product. Reunited by Microsoft, they looked over their options and one thing always stood out: local.
“Our research shows that local is the No. 1 unmet need, regardless of publisher,” noted Krohn, who previously ran Slate for Microsoft, Yahoo elections and most recently the Republican National Committee’s digital effort. Most local sites are pretty much limited to “event listings and restaurant listings,” he said.
To that end, a new site has been developed in a six-month time frame that has upgraded Local from the increasingly out-of-date and limited “MSN City Guides” to “Local Edition,” a new curated section broken down into “Local News” and “Local Events” and prominently featured on the home page. The site has been rolled out to 1 percent of its user base this week. The bulk of the user base will get the site within two months.
Even in its early iterations, the site has localized every link for 44,000 ZIP codes. It is also fed by Bing search and maps, as well as local news by MSNBC.com and Bing News. It also includes partnerships with Fox Sports, WDT (weather), Zvents, MSN Autos and Yellowpages.com. Scout, Fox’s high school sports site, will soon be added as well.
It is likely that MSNBC’s recently acquired EveryBlock, a hyperlocal data provider, will be integrated too. Twitter and Facebook feeds will also be brought in to provide live search feeds. Twitter’s live search feeds are being tried out by Yahoo and Google as well. Facebook feeds, at this point, are unique to MSN.
Krohn notes that the development team has been deliberately kept small. “It’s just me and two other people on the media team,” he says. But the team has been working closely with the very large team in MSN engineering and other parts of Microsoft.
In fact, the integration with MSN is seen by Krohn as a major differentiation with other sites. It will let the site broaden categories and let users see all their needs “all in one sitting,” he said. To the best of his knowledge, MapQuest is the only other portal that approaches the same level of integration between search and content.
The development process, however, hasn’t always been easy. Sports, for instance, has been very complex to assign local feeds too, says Krohn. This is compounded by limited personalization on the site, which really doesn’t go beyond ZIP code. Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers fans, for instance, have moved to other parts of the country; people in places like the Dakotas and Hawaii don’t have professional sports.
Localization has also been tough for ZIP codes where people live closer to a town with a different name. The default on my neighborhood, for instance, was set for the main town, eight miles away. That wasn’t useful. But it was easy to manually override the default with more local store and restaurant listings.
While the site is still in development, Krohn says he thinks it is a good start. The long-term vision, however, is to provide a “true hyperlocal or neighborhod level” site that weaves in social media, tweets from neighborhoods and is blog-centric.
Moore and Krohn are doing a joint keynote on Day 1 at ILM:09, which runs Dec. 9-11.