Microsoft Search Share Up Thanks to 'Chicktionary'

After months of diminishing market share in the search industry, Microsoft may have found the answer to competing against Google and Yahoo: Chicktionary. The addictive game, which is available on the Live Search Club site, rewards users with prizes such as software.

Microsoft's troubles in the search market date back many years. The company previously utilized Google and Yahoo to handle its search results, not launching its own engine until late 2004. At the time, Microsoft said it would put forth considerable effort and resources to regain ground on its competitors and boost its search share above 9.5%.

Two and a half years later, the picture hasn't improved very much for the Redmond company. Search queries performed on MSN fell from 16.3 percent in February 2005 to 13.5 in February of this year, according to Internet metrics firm comScore. That number dropped even farther in April, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, which put Microsoft's search share at a mere 9 percent.

comScore put MSN and Windows Live Search queries at just over 10 percent of the market in May, a distant third behind Google and Yahoo. Microsoft also saw the departure of its Windows Live Search chief, Christopher Payne, and a reorganization of the division.

But things are beginning to look up, if June numbers from comScore are to be believed. According to the firm, Microsoft gained a whopping 3 percent in search share for the month, while both Yahoo and Google dropped a percentage point.

Another Internet metrics company, Compete, said the share of MSN and Windows Live searches jumped from 8.4% in May to 13.2% in June, an increase of 67%. While Nielsen/NetRatings will surely offer a third set of numbers, the trend is clear: Microsoft is finally seeing a change of fortune in the search industry.

Or is it? According to both comScore and Compete, Microsoft's turnaround is not due to improved quality or customer satisfaction with the service, but rather an online game called "Chicktionary." The chicken-themed game lets users re-arrange letters into words, and then launches a Web search for the word. A player may indirectly run dozens of searches in a single game.

Chicktionary is available on Microsoft's Live Search Club Web site, which offers other games such as a crossword puzzle called Flexicon, which also requires searches to be made for each word. Prizes are what's apparently attracting users to the site. For each game they play, visitors earn points that can be redeemed for software like Windows Vista and Zoo Tycoon 2, as well as shirts, song downloads, headphones and more.

The effort seems to be working, at least for now. According to Compete, Live Search Club saw almost no traffic in April and 330,000 unique visitors in May. In June, the site garnered nearly 3 million unique visitors. If the numbers hold up, Microsoft has gained significant ground on Yahoo, which holds just over 19% of the search market. comScore, however, puts Yahoo's share at over 26%.

The question, of course, is whether the traffic will hold up. If users get tired of playing games and making searches for prizes -- something that has been attempted by a number of search upstarts who typically see only a brief surge in traffic -- Microsoft's search share could quickly fall back to below 10%.

"If Microsoft can actually leverage this traffic to into actual search users and string together a few more months like this, they could really threaten Google’s top spot," remarked Compete analyst Steve Willis.

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