Microsoft, long stuck in third place behind Google and Yahoo in the search wars, suddenly boosted its share of the market last month by playing a shrewd game of chicken.
Microsoft Corp.'s search share climbed to 13.2 percent in June, a whopping gain of nearly 3 percentage points over the prior month, according to research group comScore data. The company's improvement came at the expense of Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., which both saw share decline more than 1 percent.
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But it wasn't the quality of Microsoft's search results that encouraged people to type over 300 million more queries into Microsoft search boxes in June.
It was Chicktionary.
The chicken-themed letter scramble puzzle is one of several addictive Live Search Club games designed to introduce Web users to features of Microsoft's Live Search engine.
When a player enters a word formed from three or more letters displayed by a clucky group of hens, the game automatically triggers a related Web search. A single game of Chicktionary can add 35 or more queries to Microsoft's monthly total, even if the player isn't paying attention to the results.
The Live Search Club also offers crossword puzzles that can't be completed without executing one search per clue, and a matching game where every answer must be verified by a search.
Microsoft awards points for successfully completed games (20 points for a round of Chicktionary), and players can use them to buy prizes (20,000 points for a copy of Windows Vista Home Premium, normally $239).
Prize-crazy hackers have already devised "bots," or automated programs that rack up Live Search Club points. Microsoft said it monitors the games and cancels ill-gotten points or prizes, and comScore said bots don't factor into market share calculations.
Brad Goldberg, general manager of Microsoft's search business unit, would not disclose how many people played Chicktionary and other games, but said in an interview that viral marketing efforts helped the company increase traffic and search share in June.
"The results prove that the market's volatile," Goldberg said. "Big swings in share are possible in any given month."
Industry watchers are keen to know if June marked a turnaround for Microsoft's Live Search, or a one-time spike in traffic.
"So what if they're bribing people to search," said Danny Sullivan, editor of industry Web site Searchengineland.com "If those people stay with them, that might be a very smart move."
Sullivan noted that cash-for-search sites, like iwon.com from 1999, tend to enjoy a brief traffic spike before fizzling out. Iwon.com is now operated by IAC/InterActiveCorp., Ask.com's parent company.