Microsoft Offers Search Users Prizes

In an attempt to build search traffic, MSN has started offering users of its search engine a chance to win millions of dollars in prizes in a sweepstakes contest. The prizes include hotel stays; gift certificates at stores like Sephora, Starbucks, and Baby Gap; electronics; and large cash donations to charities of the users' choice.

To enter, users need to query on certain keywords, predetermined by MSN. If they query on a "winning" keyword, a link informing them that they may have won a prize will appear in the sponsored link space. At that point, users will be prompted to submit their names and other information. The odds of winning are approximately 4,000 to 1, according to MSN's official rules.

Company head Bill Gates first broached the idea of rewarding MSN searchers last December, at a conference in India. The search engine marketing sector reacted warily; some agencies maintained that the promise of rewards might devalue the ad space sold on the engine's keywords. "From the marketer's perspective, it raises a bit of a red flag any time you have to incentivize users to use your service," Bryan Wiener, president of search engine marketing firm 360i, told OnlineMediaDaily in December. "We would have to get a real understanding of whether people were using the service because it was delivering the best value."

MSN did not return calls for comment for this article.

MSN competitor Yahoo also is considering incentivizing searchers. This week, the portal sent out a survey to Yahoo Mail users, asking them what sort of rewards might entice them to use Yahoo as their primary search engine. The putative prizes include free music downloads, unlimited Yahoo Mail storage, no ads on Yahoo Mail, frequent flier miles, or a discounted membership to Yahoo Personals.

Search expert Gary Stein said the proposition of paying users to use the service is a dangerous one, and likely stems from the need to catch up with the market leader, Google. "It's desperation--it's terrible. It's just not a good idea at all," he said. "Any time you're in a position where you're paying people to use your product is a bad situation. "People should be wanting to use your product because it's a good idea."

Stein added that the sweepstakes approach to gaining traffic could potentially cheapen Microsoft and Yahoo's brands. "Is it hard to catch Google? Yeah. Nothing's been successful so far," he said. "But this is the lowest level. It's not something that a valued brand would do."