Microsoft Hopes Prizes Attract New Search Users

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Remember the long-running e-mail hoax from the early days of the Web, the one that had Bill Gates testing an "e-mail tracing program" and offering to pay recipients big bucks if they passed his test e-mail along to all their friends?

Well, the offer is true, sort of. Microsoft Corp. wants you to use its MSN search engine, and it's got $1 million worth of prizes up for grabs for those who nibble at the offer.

The company announced the three-month promotion Tuesday, inviting Web searchers to visit to take their chances at winning a prize.

"We're hopeful that once people give it shot, they'll want to come back again and again," said Lisa Gurry, director of marketing at MSN Search.

The incentive program is another example of how important search engines -- and the advertising dollars they generate -- have become to the Internet economy. It also points to the measures some will take to beat search engine powerhouse Google Inc.

Yahoo Inc. recently polled its users to see if offers such as a discount on frequent-flier miles or a subscription to online DVD rental service Netflix would tempt them into switching to its search engine.

According to Nielsen-NetRatings, MSN's search engine ranks third, trailing Google and Yahoo. In December, MSN had 10.9 percent of Web searches, down from 14 percent in December 2004.

Ken Cassar, senior director of analytics for Nielsen-NetRatings, called MSN's move a "smart promotion," adding that he has tried each of the major search engines and isn't convinced that he could differentiate the results of one from another.

Digital marketing firm WebSideStory Inc. also has found that MSN Search has lost traction over the past year. "MSN's problem is that when people think of 'search,' they think of Google," Erik Bratt, the firm's spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.

This isn't the first time a company has handed out prizes or other incentives to attract Web searchers., for example, already offers discounts to people who use its A9 search engine.

For one Google-partnered site, called, giving away prizes to Web search users is the entire business model. Blingo receives revenue from Google for referring Web search users to its results; the company takes some of that revenue and dispenses prizes to users who access Google via the site.

Blingo chief executive Frank Anderson said his site has tens of thousands of users. "It's the same business as Google has; we're just using incentives to get people to use our site," he said.

Laurel resident Laura Dalrymple won an iPod through Blingo in October and, in return, the company has won her loyalty -- even with Microsoft's incentive program out there.

"I don't think it's very likely that I'd switch," she said.

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