Online searches are generally mundane affairs, in which queries about "potatoes" may produce a string of URLs about Idaho. But what if Internet research on the Irish Potato Famine could procure not only a list of spud-related sites, but also an iPod? Or a small donation to your favorite charity?
Blingo.com and Goodsearch.com — two in a growing number of specialized Web search engines — offer incentives to their users. Google-powered Blingo awards prizes like iPods and movie tickets to users at random, while Yahoo-powered Goodsearch donates a portion of its advertising profits — about a cent per search — to a charity of the user's choice.
"We were looking for an idea that was simple and fun," said Blingo CEO Frank Anderson, who co-founded the company in 2004. He said that the idea was to "mash together" the Google business model and a sweepstakes, "two things that everyone likes."
Everyone, especially college students: Anderson said that Blingo is most popular with 18 to 34 year-olds.
Jen Andresen '07 has been using Blingo ever since her sister introduced her to the website last year. Blingo users who sign up a friend win a prize every time their friend wins one.
Although she hasn't won anything yet, Andresen said she felt her chances of winning were "okay."
"My sister has won several things, like movie tickets," she said.
Still, Andresen said she did not know anyone else at Princeton who used the site and has not tried very hard to get friends to sign up, despite the lure of extra prizes.
"College campuses have been particularly strong," Goodsearch co-founder Ken Ramberg said.
The Penn State Dance Marathon, for example, which raises money for pediatric cancer research, raised $450 in three months by asking students to use Goodsearch, according to a press release.
"There are so many colleges now following the same plan," Ramberg said.
Goodsearch also allows donations directly to schools, an option that Ramberg said is "getting bigger." But according to the site, the Trustees of Princeton have earned a total of two cents from searches.
Ramberg became involved with nonprofit organizations after his mother passed away from cancer in 2001. Soon after, he realized he could apply his prior experience in Internet startups to his charity work.
"We recognize what a difficult task nonprofits have to raise money year after year," Ramberg said. "Internet search engines generated close to $6 billion last year in revenue. We thought, what if we could direct some of that ad revenue toward good causes?"
University students are divided in their preference of search engine incentives.
Jessica Asrat '09 said that she would probably prefer to give to charity than to win prizes when she searched, a choice she said would not be expected of a Princeton student.
"The stereotype is probably that [Princeton students] like material things," said Asrat. "Which is really strange, because Princeton does so much for charity, like fundraising for Katrina."
Yet some students still admit their fondness for free stuff.
"I'm a selfish person," said Mary Huang '09. "I'd probably choose Blingo."
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