The program, Content Ads, will initially involve placing ads only on Microsoft properties, including MSN Money, MSN Real Estate, and Windows Live sites. But MSN is expected to extend the program to other publishers' sites.
This week, the company sent an invitation to advertisers, inviting them into a beta test. The invitation, posted on the blog JenSense, said Content Ads would allow marketers to distribute search ads "primarily" on other Microsoft properties. Industry observers took the word "primarily" as an indication that the company intends to eventually include non-Microsoft publishers, much like Google's AdSense and the Yahoo Publisher Network.
David Berkowitz, chief strategist for search engine marketing firm 360i, said that ContentAds would help bring Microsoft's adCenter offering in line with the services offered by Google and Yahoo. "It's very common for advertisers to do blanket search and contextual buys. This will give advertisers the full range of options with MSN," he said.
Berkowitz added that MSN could differentiate itself from Google and Yahoo by bringing adCenter's more advanced targeting features to third-party publisher sites. "With adCenter, they were able to be seen as a pioneer in paid search targeting, and so it looks like they're positioning themselves that way in the contextual network."
But the key battles will be fought over publishers, not advertisers, said Josh Stylman, managing partner at Reprise Media. "From an advertiser perspective, we know that we'll buy MSN contextual," he said. "The harder challenge will be for them to get that inventory, particularly with Google locking up all the key partnerships."
The struggle for major content partners was fought over social networks this summer, with Google sewing up MySpace, the number one site in the category, and Microsoft picking up contender Facebook.com.