Just a few short months ago, Microsoft decided to give up on Bing Cashback, a service that Microsoft launched with an obvious goal: expose people to Microsoft search by paying them cash back when they make a purchase through participating retailers.

It worked to a certain extent. When Microsoft originally launched its cashback initiative under the name Live Cashback, Microsoft’s share of search volume jumped.

But despite the initial jump, and the following Bing Cashback maintained, Microsoft announced in June of this year that it would be shuttering the service. It didn’t deliver the “broad adoption that we had hoped for,” the company said, but it promised that it would be developing new products to take Bing Cashback’s place.

Yesterday, Microsoft announced that it was launching Bing Rewards. The goal: expose people to Bing by essentially paying them. This time, however, Microsoft has unveiled a preview of a product that is much more aggressive in that Rewards directly seeks to incentivise users to actually use Bing more generally. Unlike Cashback, which was as simple as ‘make a qualifying purchase and get x% back‘, Rewards is a full-blown lots-of-strings-attached search-based loyalty program:

  • Users must install the Bing Bar, which as the name suggests, is a browser toolbar.
  • Users must use IE7 or above.
  • Users must have a Windows Live ID.

Users willing and able to meet these requirements can earn ‘credits‘ by completing various actions, including performing searches with Bing, setting Bing as their homepage, etc. Once they’ve earned enough credits, users can exchange them for a variety of products and services, including gift cards, electronics and movie tickets. Alternatively, users can make charitable donations using credits.

According to Microsoft, “Similar to other loyalty programs (grocery stores, frequent traveler programs,
credit cards and more) Bing Rewards is a great way to get rewarded for doing
what you love to do online—searching, exploring, and discovering
“. But is it?

Bing Rewards is essentially the reincarnation of Microsoft’s SearchPerks program in 2008. And was shut down a year later. Which begs the question: if ‘paying‘ users to use your service is such an effective model, why the on-and-of-again relationship Microsoft seems to have with it? The answer: you can pay people to use your service, but that’s not the same thing as making them want to use your service. The former isn’t sustainable or scalable, the latter is.

In my opinion, Microsoft should focus on the basics. The company has arguably done a lot of things right in search lately. Bing is, after all, better than many expected. But it’s still unclear as to whether search will ever be a profitable endeavor for Microsoft. Instead of trying the same thing over and over again, hoping for different results, Microsoft might want to think about addressing that question.

Photo credit: quaziefoto via Flickr.