Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has always struggled to make its MSN brand and the MSN.com homepage relevant to consumers.
Though the company claims an audience of more than 425 million people across 50 countries for MSN.com, it ranks well behind the other major portal sites both in the United States and across the world, according to traffic estimates from Alexa. The MSN homepage even ranks behind Microsoft's own Bing search portal.
Now, Microsoft is attempting to turn around the fortunes for its long-struggling site by introducing a new design that makes MSN.com look a lot more like Windows 8's not-very-well-received "Metro" interface. The new concept, which can be seen in preview here, also makes it easier to access other Microsoft products, including Outlook, Office, and OneDrive. The new design unifies the look for the site across all devices including computers, tablets, and phones. Providing the same experience across all platforms has been a key part of Microsoft's One Microsoft effort.
Going all-in with a design concept consumers have not exactly embraced is gutsy, but it suggests Microsoft thinks that design is not why people have been hesitant to adopt Windows 8. The launch of the new MSN.com will likely prove that one way or the other.
How big a hill does MSN have to climb?
On the plus side, MSN.com ranks No. 27 on Alexa's one-month ranking of websites in the United States as of September 10, and 33 on the global listings. That's impressive, but still far below a number of the companies it competes with. Here's a look at where the major U.S. portal and search engine sites rank domestically and globally.
Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) is clearly dominant globally as a number of if its overseas sites including Google.co.in (No. 13), Google.de (No. 26,) and Google.co.uk (No. 31) outrank MSN on a worldwide level. The same is true for Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) which also places Yahoo.co.jp (No. 18) ahead of MSN.
The most obvious competitors for MSN on this list are AOL (NYSE:AOL) and Yahoo! since all three are content plays, and Google's homepage is a pure search engine. Go.com is something else entirely as it's a catch-all for owner Disney's various brands. MSN is a big player, but it's well behind Yahoo!, which is pouring tens of millions into creating distinctive content, which includes hiring Katie Couric and licensing a new season of the cult hit TV show Community.
Microsoft has gone in a different direction entirely, eliminating all original content created both in-house and by freelancers. This included stopping producing original news for its MSN News service and killing the MSN Now site, which created original content on potentially viral topics.
What is Microsoft doing?
The public version of what the company is trying to do with the new design of MSN.com was explained by Microsoft Vice President of Information and Content Experiences Brian McDonald in a blog post:
...we have rebuilt MSN from the ground up for a mobile-first, cloud-first world. The new MSN brings together the world's best media sources along with data and services to enable users to do more in News, Sports, Money, Travel, Food & Drink, Health & Fitness, and more. It focuses on the primary digital daily habits in people's lives and helps them complete tasks across all of their devices. Information and personalized settings are roamed through the cloud to keep users in the know wherever they are.
That makes sense as the new design, as well as any personalization or preferences will travel with logged-in users as they move between Windows PCs, tablets, and phones.The revamped look also makes it very simple to access other Microsoft products.
Because the site is now the same across all platforms, it allows Microsoft to produce the MSN.com homepage with less people. A number of MSN vendors and contractors have been cut, with another group already being notified that their contracts won't be renewed after September 30. Only a few direct Microsoft employees have been let go from MSN, though others have left the company or transferred to other divisions.
Microsoft would not confirm this, and a representative of the company's public relations team declined to comment on this issue in an email sent to the Fool.
Reducing staff is always painful for the people involved (and worse when the people being laid off are people you once worked with). But in the case of the MSN cuts, they do make sense as the Online Services Division, which includes MSN as well as Bing and what were once known as the Windows 8 apps, has consistently lost money. The division lost $2.56 billion in 2011, $8.12 billion in 2012, and $1.28 billion in 2013.
Will it work?
The problem for Microsoft has never been that MSN.com was not a good product on par with Yahoo!. The challenge has been that Yahoo! got there first, and nothing Microsoft did was good enough to make people change. The new layout is a gamble, as Windows 8 has not been popular, but the concept of mixing a homepage with links to the company's broad array of tools and services makes sense. Delivering the same experience across all devices is also a good idea, though it remains to be seen whether it will be a draw with consumers.
MSN.com had to change if Microsoft has any hopes of it becoming more popular and eventually profitable. These moves tie its fate to the the broader fate of Windows in general. Basically, Microsoft has gone all-in on having one look and feel for its consumer-facing products and the success of MSN.com rests on whether the public accepts or rejects it.
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