Microsoft's track record online isn't so great. Despite spending billions on its MSN unit over the years, Microsoft is still struggling to become a true 'destination' for internet surfers. That's not entirely surprising given the fact that, at its core, Microsoft has always been better 'technology' company than anything else.

So Microsoft turned to Hollywood's BermanBraun Interactive to build a new content site in one of the most popular, and competitive, content verticals: celebrity news.

Today the partners launched Wonderwall, a celebrity news site that goes head-to-head with Yahoo's omg!, AOL's TMZ and dozens upon dozens of other sites dedicated to making sure that we all know what is happening in Britney Spears' life.

So how does Wonderwall stack up?

It's actually not a bad effort. BermanBraun Interactive has built an attractive site with an interface that is quite different but still easy - and actually enjoyable - to use. The most prominent feature is 'The Wall', which, as the name suggests, is a visual wall of all the latest celebrity news. Click on a news item and you can find out how Tom Cruise has won over the people of Brazil without leaving the page; the article slides right onto the wall.

When I first read about this interface, I suspected it would be difficult to figure out. It's actually not, although the scroll bar at the bottom that allows you to see all of the content might not be obvious to some users and should be made more obvious.

If building an attractive interface was all it took to create a successful website, MSN and BermanBraun Interactive would have a hit on their hands. While the interface is more unique than groundbreaking, I do like it.

Unfortunately, it takes more to achieve success. Wonderwall's biggest problems: content and community. Wonderwall is built primarily around content aggregated from other sources, although a small team of editors does exist to produce original content. I'm not so sure that's a winning recipe; in my opinion, such a competitive space really demands a heavy investment in original content.

And when it comes to community, as AllThingsDigital's Kara Swisher points out, there's really no way to interact around Wonderwall's content. That's a huge drawback in a day and age where basic features allowing for participation, such as comments, are ubiquitous. Since celebrity news is a popular topic for water cooler discussion, it boggles the mind to think that MSN and BermanBraun Interactive would launch without community features. Lloyd Braun, a former television exec and the head of Yahoo media, said they are coming soon.

I'm not sure that's good enough. Despite 'liking' Wonderwall, I can't say that the experience was compelling enough to make me want to check it on a regular basis or make it the first site I turn to when I need to know who Paris Hilton dated over the weekend.

That said, with a good push from Microsoft, I'm sure Wonderwall can eek out some market share in the celebrity news space. What that does for its MSN unit, however, remains to be seen. Because the market is so competitive and properties relying on advertising are being squeezed by smaller ad budgets, one has to wonder whether Microsoft has just launched a meaningful addition to MSN or just a really pretty site.

Patricio Robles

Published 6 February, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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