Search Engines Employ New Tactics to Gain Searchers

The competition among the top three search engines is unbelievably fierce, and the ferocity increases exponentially on a daily basis. As Google boasts the largest amount of surfers, Yahoo claims to have more sites in their database than Google. Whatever the statistics they proclaim at the moment makes them the best search engine, it is clear that they want more than their current share of the pie. MSN Search is offering a chance to win prizes just for using their search engine with their Search and Win Promotion.

As the word spreads that MSN is giving away incentives, people are winning stuff like AMC Theater gift cards, American Express gift certificates, a digital camera, a plasma HDTV, a year’s worth of oil and maintenance from Jiffy Lube and many more.  The total retail value of all the prizes is $402,688.  But you better hurry, as the promotion ends March 31, 2006.  (Hint:  view MSN’s source code on the Search and Win page, and look at the keywords listed there, which will prompt the game links.)

The official rules for MSN’s Search and Win Promotions gives you two ways to enter. Method #1: Access the MSN Search and Win Promotion website online at http://www.msnsearchandwin.com. Conduct a Web search on the word or phrase that is pre-populated or enter your own word or phrase in the MSN Search module provided on the promotion website. Click the “Search” button to begin the Web search process and to display the results. Method #2: Conduct a Web Search using the MSN Search module available at http://search.msn.com or other channels of MSN.com. When the Web Results of your Web Search are displayed, click the “MSN Search and Win” link located in the “Sponsored Sites” box on the Web Results page presented to determine if you are a winner. If you receive a message stating, “You are an Instant Winner” you win the prize indicated, subject to prize claim and verification.”

Furthermore, MSN is offering a Second Chance Drawing, for any unclaimed or undeliverable prizes. You can find more information about that drawing on their site as well.

Since MSN is giving away nearly half a million dollars worth of prizes, both in primary and secondary drawings, you can bet they are indeed serious about shaking up the market.  Coming on the heels of the announcement of its own pilot adCenter Program, which is similar to Google’s AdWords, yet claims to target advertisers with usage statistics and tracking information.  MSN’s adCenter goes into full effect in June of this year, so the move to offer huge incentives to searchers may be only the beginning of MSN’s campaign to strengthen their share of the search market, and steal away searchers from both Google and Yahoo.

While search experts and users alike wonder about MSN’s motives for throwing such a huge promotion, we see an indication of what MSN is thinking from their blog: “…but when it comes down to it we have made a lot of improvements over the past year with our [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.

Yahoo began polling random Yahoo mail users in February, asking what incentives users would want for making Yahoo the primary search engine they use.  Among the possible incentives offered were discounted NetFlix subscriptions, free music downloads, PC-to-phone calling credits, and even donations to the user’s charity of choice.  While it is too early to tell if Yahoo plans to embark on this sort of campaign, many of the users polled would be agreeable to use Yahoo as their primary search engine in exchange for rewards, however the results of the poll are to be very confidential.

While MSN offers its chances to win to anyone, for Yahoo searchers, they would probably have to either install the Yahoo toolbar or login to search to be eligible for the incentives.  A few people have commented that they are wary of the Yahoo toolbar, as it makes them feel that it is spyware, as well as an invasion into their private browsing habits.  Other users have remarked that they felt that having to login in order to surf the web was too much of a hassle, nor do they feel comfortable surfing while logged in as it indicates tracking of sites that a user might visit online.  Many searchers like the anonymity they feel they have when they utilize a search engine via HTTP versus a desktop search utility.

In response to the news that Yahoo may be considering gimmicks as well, Smith Barney says, “I’m not installing spyware for any reason, but as I DO NOT trust the hippie liberals controlling Google I’d happily switch to using yahoo movies to look up movies instead of imdb.com to save $7/month…”

The “use-our-service-get-something-free” is an age-old marketing tactic that is extremely successful, and anyone with something to sell has tried it in one way or another.  People like the idea of receiving something for nothing, such as a prize or an incentive.  But it is way too soon to tell how much traffic the techniques will generate for the search engines, or how much of the market they would be stealing away from Google.

Researchers indicate that more internet users are becoming more educated about how to best utilize a search engine, and that many people tend to use one search engine over another simply out of habit or convenience.  One researcher indicated that polled people like using Google’s search page as it is free from advertisements and other distractions, unlike both MSN and Yahoo Searches.

While the marketing techniques of both MSN and Yahoo may temporarily divert searchers to their search engines, it is quite another matter to keep them coming back or to switch their preferred search engine permanently.  The question is, will these gimmicks work?  Polled individuals from a random variety of backgrounds, ages, races, and income levels have differing opinions about the promotions general.

Avner Bugatti has this to say about the new MSN promotion: “Hmmm…. So while I may not find the search results I’m looking for, I have the chance of winning one of many fabulous prizes?  While Google concentrates on making products that work, I guess Microsoft is [focusing] its efforts on finding ways to lure customers to use an inferior product.  Memo to Bill Gates: Give us results, not gimmicks. Otherwise, prepare to become the used-car salesman of the internet.”

David Schwartz has a different view than Barney regarding switching to Yahoo Search: “I’d do it…in a sec. Those perks sound great. Just for using their search? Sign me up!”  John Hyde also seems excited at the prospect of Yahoo incentives.  “I’ll do it too!  I got the survey; I use Yahoo messenger with voice (7.0) and I’ll do it for the free calls!

Yahoo representatives are saying that it is still too early to determine whether they will indeed offer incentives or not; and if they do know, they’re not telling.  They also will not comment on which incentives the users polled felt was the best deal or the most popular.

Along with the Search and Win Promotion from MSN, a new user interface was rolled out in February to prepare for the larger numbers of searchers.  Many of the feedback comments indicate that the new UI is easy on the eyes and user friendly, however searchers also complain that they are still receiving sub-standard search results.  One example cited a search for “bad credit loans” returned search results with the same domain sitting in seven of the ten results displayed.

All the gimmicks in the world are not going to change what ideally people want in a search engine: to find what they are looking for quickly and easily.  If a search is done by a user, they want the results that show exactly what they need without having to dig deep and sort through the muck of spam oriented websites.

In a sense, some people even feel that the promotion is a sort of “bait and switch” practice.  MSN’s baits the user with the promise of the opportunity to win a fabulous prize, to use their search engine, only then to feel cheated by the returned websites in the search results.  Certainly, these folks will definitely not switch their search engine, and if they are using MSN for the prizes only, you can bet that come April 1, 2006, they’ll be back to their original search engine.

So how does Google feel about the promotions that may be threatening the position of the most popular search engine?  They’re not talking, but chances are they are simply waiting for the buzz to die down.  A strategic move at this point may just be the “watch and see what happens” approach, and then crunch the numbers.  At least, that’s what I would do.


For information about Jennifer Sullivan Cassidy’s professional search engine optimization services, please visit her site at First Class SEO.

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