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April 10, 2006

MSN: “Next time we will be more ready…” Next Time?

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It would seem that when trying to make up ground among your search engine competitors, having your engine crash would be considered a bad thing. Keeping with that theme, you can deduce having your system remain crashed and inoperable for almost four hours would then be considered a very bad thing; that not having an answer to explain WHY your engine crashed more than 24 hours later would be very, very bad; and that preparing your users for your next crash would be slightly dim-witted.

And yet, that’s exactly what MSN did.

For those who don’t obsessively check their blog feeds or who don’t acknowledge MSN’s search engine, you may be unaware that MSN suffered an outage of sorts last week. Users who tried to access the dead engine between 8:30am and 12:15pm PST on Thursday were greeted by an ‘unavailable’ error message instead of search results. Web Search General Manager Ken Moss issued a statement late Friday apologizing for the outage, MSN’s delayed public response and said next time their engine crashed they would keep users up-to-date on the recovery process.

Next time? Are they planning for their engine to instantaneously crash again? That doesn’t particularly instill a vote of confidence.

Now, we want to like MSN. We are all in favor of ‘scrappy startups’ overcoming and overpowering their large corporate rivals in the battle of search. In fact, that’s a battle we would pay to see. So when we heard of their outage, we wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. We had hoped they would be up and running in no time and that they would have a clear, reasonable answer as to what happened and how they would make sure it never happened again. Unfortunately, it took more than a day to hear from them and the analogy used to explain why they didn’t have more information left us puzzled. Moss explained:

“Say you are in a car accident – a rear-end collision at 10mph can turn into a 10-car pileup, and the folks at the end of the line have a hard time figuring out exactly why their car was affected.”

Huh? Why would I want to imagine myself in a car accident? And more to the point, weren’t the users at the back of the pile-up? Shouldn’t the engineers have been in car 1? And how did the boys of MSN get the engine up and running again, you ask? By disabling the spellchecker. What? But I guess we should give the folks behind MSN Search a break. It’s refreshing to have a company be honest about their mishaps, and like Moss said – “we’re still new to the search business – and in many ways we’re still learning”. I guess Thursday was one of their first (and most public) tests.

Let’s hope their users are grading on a curve… and don’t have trouble spelling.

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