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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rewards for Search: Yahoo Canada Teams Up With Air Miles

Toolbar installation for cash or points isn't new. It has an uneven history in Internet lore, with the crash and burn of a few schemes back in 2000 as they were overrun by teens and hackers gaming the systems.

That wasn't the only reason I was skeptical when Microsoft rolled out a program to reward users for the searches they do, a few months back. (It's been a modest success, while share of non-incented searching on Live Search seems to be still declining.) It's also because people are not always eager to change their behavior just to get some small reward. Changing brand loyalty from Google to another search engine would take more than just points, you would think.

So how will this program whereby Yahoo (teamed up with a toolbar software company) rewards Air Miles cardholders for the searches they do, shake out? Will people switch to Yahoo just for the points? Well, they pick credit cards on that basis. But it probably isn't the reason why I bought Tropicana orange juice over another brand.

Despite not being overly impressed with all incentive schemes, I do know that some loyalty programs are much more popular than others. People love Air Miles. (They love real air miles even more, so a frequent flyer program toolbar like Aeroplan might be a bit more exciting.)

Still, one of the key reasons Air Miles works and keeps working is that your behavior is constantly being prompted. The clerk at the store, or the display at the gas station, asks you if you've got an Air Miles card. That isn't happening with your choice of, say, search engines or browsers (and when it does, unless it's at the top of your device or OS setup funnel, i.e. when you're just configuring it, you tend to get annoyed at the "browser war" or "search war" that puts all these prompts in your face).

So for this to work, somebody needs to prompt web users to install a toolbar or to make use of a loyalty program. Otherwise, far fewer searchers are going to take the trouble to make the switch. I'm sure a purple flyer in the Air Miles mailing will help. But that won't be enough, either.

That's why a merger between Microsoft and Yahoo (or, given that Microsoft isn't interested, the all-encompassing partnership they're probably going to work on) makes so much sense. If Microsoft, along with other players such as the makers of computers and mobile devices, prompt owners of new computers, new software, new OS's, etc., with the reminder to install the toolbar or to activate it with the rewards card information, now you're seeing some serious adoption that might win some market share back from Google... who would be unlikely to follow suit, as it would look tacky for the market leader to try to copycat such a transparent attempt to bribe people to use their search engine.

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