Hey Microsoft: Bribing Searchers Is Fine; Frustrating Them Is Not!

I’ve got no problem if Microsoft wants to “bribe” searchers to use its search engine. Even Google has done the same. But the Live Search Cashback program rolled out today seems a pretty inept way to do it, far more likely to disappoint and frustrate than woo searchers. The program is officially live now (see our Microsoft “Cashback” Program Aims To Lure Commercial Shoppers With Rebates, Marketers With CPA Model post), and as part of that, you can better understand how it integrates regular live search results.

Barry Schwartz has already written his Playing With Live Search Cashback post that specifically looks at how the system works when you go directly to it. I wanted to play myself, this time from the main Live Search site, and discover how things go. My feeling after doing so is that this is far from ready as the big game changer that Microsoft is hoping it will be.

I’m about to move back to the United States from living in England for 12 years. That means there are a number of items I’m going to need to purchase, since some of my UK stuff won’t work in the US. Let’s take one of these — a DVD recorder — and see how I might react as an ordinary searcher who has heard I can save on items through Live Search.

To buy a DVD recorder, I first need to figure out which model I actually want. So I do a search for dvd recorders in hopes of getting help with my decision from Live Search. I see a “Cashback” icon associated with one of Live Search’s own house ads. I click on that and get to the dvd recorders page.

What do I find here to help me, as a searcher, understand which I should go with among my various options? Nothing. I’ve just got a page of individual models, not rated, not reviewed. As a searcher, I’ve been left high and dry.

Hey — over at Google, the experience from the main search results isn’t that much better. But remember, Microsoft is trying to convince me that they’re better than Google with this new program. What they’ve shown me so far is that I have to do a lot more work to figure out which DVD recorder I want.

To save time, I headed over to Become.com, a shopping search engine with a “research” mode that brought back a number of reviews from across the web. Sadly, that was disappointing too — pointing me to a lot of outdated reviews. In the end, I hit Yahoo Shopping which at least will show me DVD records that are top rated by other people who have purchased. I narrowed that down to those with a hard disk drive, and let’s overlook the fact that Panasonic doesn’t seem to be one of the brands listed, even though I know they make DVD recorders with hard drives. Clearly, Yahoo Shopping has issues — and I’ll come back to that, too.

In the end, let’s say I’ve completed the research process and decided on a Philips DVD3575H model listed here. Now that I’ve depended on other resources outside Live Search to figure out what model I want, I have to leave a page that’s allowing me to buy right then and there because I remember Live Search might save me money.

I search for that model using the cashback service and get a “Your search returned no results” message. But that’s the model I wanted, and now I’m disappointed. OK, how about any Philips DVD recorder? I do a search again on the cashback site, then narrow it down using the “DVD Players/Recorders” option — only to find some of the things listed really don’t seem to be DVD recorders — like this or this.

OK, I give up. Let’s go for something different. I need a new Xbox 360, since my UK one won’t work in the US. There are only two models, standard or elite. I’m going for the elite and do a search for that.

The results tell me I can get a bottomline price of $330 from a place I’ve never heard of called CompuVest. That’s a big savings over the next lowest, Kmart at $403. So I head to check out CompuVest. Yep, there’s the Xbox — at $350. I have to remember, as Barry pointed out in his article, the price will be lower when I get the rebate. I also have to trust, after years of learning that rebates never appear, that this time they will. And then after repeatedly clicking Add To Cart, I finally notice the “Sorry. This item is not available at this moment” message.

Sigh. OK, how about K-Mart? Well, the price at the site is $450. Live Search told me with rebate it would be $403 and the pre-rebate price would be $411. So what’s up with that?

Do I sound tired now? I should, because I’m feeling pretty frustrated. I didn’t get much help figuring out which DVD recorder I should buy from Live Search (much less Google or Yahoo or even Become, which is supposed to specialize in that). Yet, this is a core feature a search engine should be helping me with. Strike one against my Live Search experience. Hell, strike one against all of them for seeming to have abandoned relevancy when it comes to product research searching.

Next, when I specifically knew a particular product, I didn’t find that it was available (for the DVD recorder). Strike two. And for the Xbox, I’ve got one merchant telling me the product is no longer in stock and another giving me a completely different price. Strike three.

This isn’t a way to win over consumers. This is a bad experience. In hopes of saving money, I’m wasting a lot of time and getting a bad impression of a search site that wants to woo me. Oh, and not saving money either.

I’m sure things will improve, and there’s potential in the model. But it has to be much simpler than this.

Remember Google Checkout, the PayPal-rival that Google pushes? At the end of last year, Google offered a range of incentives to those using its service to buy things. And since Google Checkout is also a default sorting option within Google Shopping, that’s a indirect incentive to searchers. And it’s one that’s easier than this complicated rebate system Microsoft has unveiled.

Want to get even easier? Back in 1999, Overture (then GoTo) started paying sites $0.03 for each search they generated. AltaVista, Lycos and yes — even Google — started doing the same. As I wrote at the time back then:

Finally, Google becomes the latest major service to pay affiliates 3 cents for each search request sent to them. With these programs becoming so widespread, it might even make sense (no pun intended) for libraries or even individuals to consider becoming affiliates of the search engines they use often. If you’ve got to search, why not get paid?

So for those scoffing at the idea that Microsoft is so “desperate” that it wants to pay searches, let’s not forget that even the Big G was doing it indirectly through affiliates and continues to do it today through its AdSense For Search program. Why not have a “frequent searcher” program that rewards those who regularly search on a particular search engine, perhaps with credits that can be spent with merchants of their choice? It’s not a new idea — just one that none of the major search engines have seriously tried before.

Indiana Jones Search: Indy Meets Microsoft Live Search covers some rewards program Microsoft has already tried and says are indeed bringing back “real” or “regular” searchers, though Nielsen: Google Hits New Search Share High covers how two ratings services in a week have reported the opposite, that Microsoft is losing share.

Today’s Microsoft rebate program is a further evolution of those rewards programs. Perhaps it offers more incentive for “regulars” to return. But to me, it seems seriously flawed. I feel like Microsoft has built a “coupon” or “rebate” search engine that may attract a subset of people looking for bargains on products they already know they want. That’s a far cry from attracting the core search audience that Microsoft so very much wants to pull away from Google.

For more, see our related coverage:

And also see here on Techmeme for coverage from across the web.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Microsoft: Bing | Microsoft: Marketing

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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