MSN Tries to Buy Some Love

All you compulsive players who can’t resist scratching off those fast-food game cards, take note. MSN Search has just launched an instant giveaway that gives users the chance to snag some swag for doing something MSN hopes they’ll soon be doing anyway: searching the Web with MSN.

In the MSN Search and Win promotion, users who search on 1,200 pre-determined keywords will see a “Search and Win” logo and can click on that to see if they’ve been selected for one of a series of prizes—everything from digital cameras and high-definition TVs to gift certificates from a range of merchants. Altruists can also be eligible for monthly chances to win donations of $10,000, $25,000 and $50,000 to the charity of their choice. The game will run through April, but the list of keywords that trigger the prizes and drawing entries will change at the end of February and then, presumably, at the end of March.

Why offer these incentives to users? As MSN Search product manager Brady Forrest put it in a post on the MSN blog, “We have made a lot of improvements over the past year with our [search algorithm] so people should notice a difference in relevance, and a marketing campaign like MSN Search and Win is a good way to encourage people to try us again so they can see the improvements for themselves.” MSN would also like to show off tweaks in its search interface, such as a longer query box, highlighting in the results, and a color that looks a lot more like Google’s white page.

But MSN isn’t alone in thinking about shortcuts to search popularity. Right before the contest was announced, a press report revealed that Yahoo! had questioned some of its e-mail users about their receptivity to a loyalty program that might offer free music downloads, discount DVD rentals and even frequent-flier miles in return for making Yahoo! their go-to search engine. A Yahoo! spokesperson said the survey was part of the company’s ongoing product research and that no decisions about any loyalty programs had been made.

The idea of rewarding people for using your site may hark back to the days of the dot-com boom (, anyone?), but other engines today offer users reasons to stay and search. For example, Amazon’s A9 extends discounts of 1.57% (half the value of mathematical pi, and therefore called “a piece of pi”) on retail items from its Web site to users who download the A9 toolbar and then perform a certain number of searches each week using A9.Another site,, hands out prizes to searchers who use the site for search at randomly chosen times; the searches are actually Google results, and Blingo earns revenue from Google for referring its users. And portal, owned by Ask Jeeves parent IAC/InterActive Corp., hands out an array of cash prizes to registered users daily, monthly and yearly.

Even Google, with 40% of all U.S. search traffic in November 2005, is rumored to be investigating the possibility of some kind of incentive program for loyal users.

Offering prizes and rewards may earn the search engines what they want from users—brand awareness for MSN, a higher degree of loyalty for Google and Yahoo!—but some in the search advertising community feel they stand to lose in this game.

“This is really scary for the paid-search arena,” says Tim Daly, vice president of marketing and strategy for online marketing agency SendTec. “You can’t reward people for clicking behavior in search. You can’t incent a click. That’s like incenting someone to fill out a mortgage lead: The leads won’t be very valuable. We’ve already got enough trouble out there with the second-tier engines not giving us the highest quality traffic. You’ll have the same challenge with these loyalty and rewards gong forward.”

Another danger is that competitors will pick up on such programs, negating any loyalty effect for the search engines as users flip to whichever site is offering the best premiums that month—much the way wireless users used to switch carriers every six months to get a new mobile phone for $2. By that time, the programs could be institutionalized and as hard to suspend as airlines’ frequent-flier programs.

“The key is creating loyalty through germane tactics and better search results,” Daly says. “At the end of the day, these engines need to focus on getting their toolbars out there. They’ll get loyalty by sharpening their core product, search, and not by giving away freebies and holding sweepstakes.”

Ellen Siminoff, CEO of search marketing firm Efficient Frontier, agrees that incentive plays could pose a danger for advertisers’ return on their marketing investment, but appreciates that MSN and possibly Yahoo! are trying new ways to broaden their reach among users.

“I think the positive side is that they’re getting creative about how they’re going to draw people to their sites,” she says. “As long as people are dong real searches, and as long as they have the same intent that they did before when clicking on ads related to those searches, then it’s fine. If it leads to people clicking on ads with no intention of converting, then that becomes costly to the advertisers. We won’t know for a while if that’s happening.” Her firm focuses intently on ROI in managing search campaigns, so any falloff would lead to a cutback in ads on the underconverting engine, she says.

Daly’s firm will be watching the MSN metrics too, and with a somewhat more pessimistic eye. If the search engines make loyalty or incentive programs part of their regular offering, “They’ll find advertisers running for cover quickly,” he says. “Clicks will go through the roof, conversions will go into the toilet, and it will be the advertisers who lose.”

“The reason search works is because it’s a marketing pull [from customers], not a push [from the engines],” he says. “If the engines start pushing with incentives, we might have to recommend that our clients walk away.”

Whether or not MSN’s Search and Win game or any of the other incentive plans in development wind up degrading the quality of the search clicks, they have already run into the Internet’s perennial scourge—hackers. Within 24 hours of the MSN announcement, several blogs added posts with extensive lists of some of the keywords that triggered the prize alert: everything from the obvious (“Starbucks”, “movies”) to the impossibly recondite (“Mies van der Rohe”, “modernism”, “Melinda Gates”). Another hacker found a way to automate entering the prize keywords and then clicking on the “Search and Win” links that appeared. It took 4,122 clicks, but he finally made it to a prize page for a Home Depot gift card.

One comment on the blog listing the prize-eligible keywords: “You couldn’t have waited till I got a plasma TV to post this?”

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