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When Joke Emails Turn Real

In the cyclical world of chain emails one of the earliest staples was an email claiming that Microsoft were able to track emails being sent and Bill Gates will pay you for each and every person who you forwarded the particular message to.

In May of this year, Microsoft launched their Live Search Cashback program, designed to reward Internet users who used Microsoft Live to find and purchase goods online, but it didn't really garner much attention from anybody.

The idea sounds almost exactly like the chain email of yesteryear - use a Microsoft product and they'll send you money (or at least get you a discount when you spend your money). Where the chain email was readily identifiable and somewhat of a nuisance, the Live Search Cashback program doesn't seem to have the mindshare that Microsoft would have hoped. Recent maneuvers from the software giant suggest that it is either pre-positioning for an aggressive online Christmas shopping season assault (Black Friday is only a fortnight away), or struggling to find people who are willing to use the service, even when paid. With the lack of widespread awareness of the service, both opinions could be considered valid.

By increasing the number of conditions applied to any rebate, it severely limits the usefulness of the service to the majority of the Internet using world. The 25% rebate for eBay purchases is limited to $200, paid through PayPal, and only available in the United States (there are some jurisdictions internationally where the eBay / PayPal enforcement is not looked upon kindly).

Why Microsoft see it as being necessary to pay people to use their search engine is not known. While the other major competitors (Google and Yahoo!) don't seem to have directly competing paid-to-use services, there are a number of fly-by-night companies that keep appearing (and mostly rapidly disappearing) who offer to pay users to search online in an effort to improve the SEO results for their clients.

Perhaps the best commentary on the whole idea is a single word:


Surely there are better ways to attract online customers. If Microsoft's own financial reporting is anything to go by, then their Online Services division (which includes Live) is an ever-growing black hole, losing $480 million USD in the first quarter of 2008-2009, for a division that lost $1.23 billion USD in the entire previous financial year (07-08), double what it lost in 06-07 ($617 million USD).

9 November 2008

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