Internet "newbies" accounted for a large part of the Microsoft Network's portal growth over the past year, propelling into the number one spot worldwide, according to the company's own figures.
America Online disputed the relevancy of the figures, which exclude proprietary services such as AOL's.
MSN announced Monday that its sites -- including popular services such as Hotmail and Expedia -- had 201 million unique visitors worldwide in June, surpassing AOL and Yahoo! The portal counted 195 percent growth from June 1999 to June 2000.
Yahoo! disclosed a worldwide figure of 156 million, and has recently claimed to have the top portal spot. AOL does not disclose a similar figure for its Web portal, but is the world's largest Internet service provider, with more than 23 million paying subscribers for its core service.
Sharon Baylay, MSN's marketing manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said the launch of several new international portal sites, such as those in Israel and the Czech Republic, helped boost visitor figures. The site now boasts the largest number of portals, operating in 33 international markets in 17 languages.
At the same time MSN has also benefited from the growth in Internet users around the world, and has slanted its advertising heavily toward new users. "The Internet has grown tremendously and we have captured a significant amount of that new growth," Baylay said.
The Internet continues to grow more quickly outside the US than inside, and that has doubtless helped MSN leapfrog the competition. In the US, MSN is generally ranked third after Yahoo! and AOL.
MSN's new status -- which has not been audited or confirmed by an outside authority such as Nielsen//NetRatings or MediaMetrix -- is a turnaround from as recently as a year ago, when the site's figures trailed better known portals.
Unlike Yahoo! or AOL, however, many users may not even be aware they are contributing page views to MSN. It is better known for its component sites such as Hotmail.
A senior AOL spokesman questioned whether MSN's figures matter, since it only compares Web visitors, leaving out subscription figures for AOL and MSN's proprietary Internet services. "It's difficult to give a meaningful reaction to these numbers, because it depends how you count them," he said. "I'm not sure how relevant any analysis can be if it excludes the world's largest Internet service provider."
Yahoo! was not available for comment at press time.