If you've got to search, why not have a chance to win some money at the same time? That's the premise behind iWon -- a portal that gives cash prizes to its users. And it's a model that's seems to be working. The service launched in October, and only two months later, it had jumped into Media Metrix's Top 50 web site list. That's the fastest rise for any search-oriented service that I can recall. It usually takes new, successful services many months to make it into the list.
Cash is one draw for the site, and its partnership with US television network CBS is another. CBS has a majority stake in iWon and promotes the portal to its viewers.
The idea for a giveaway came about over a lunch in January 1999, between iWon's two founders and co-CEOs, Jonas Steinman and Bill Daugherty. They were brainstorming an Internet product to produce.
"We thought the best model out there was the portal, so we started talking about the existing portals, Steinman said. "The real weakness is that they are all in this game of matching each other tit for tat for functionality, and it was basically a commoditized product. This shouldn't be commoditized. Our instincts were that there should be a way to differentiate the product. Pretty basic stuff, and here we are."
The differentiation comes in the form of $10,000 daily prizes, $1 million monthly prizes and a $10 million annual prize that will be given away on April 17.
"We're really rewarding people for what they do online. If you are going to read the news at Yahoo, read it at iWon. We're providing you the same thing that other people provide you, plus the chance to win," Steinman said.
Once registered as an iWon user, everything you click on within the site potentially earns you entries toward the prizes (if you are a US resident). Each link is prefaced with a number, like this:
That indicates that clicking on the email link to reach your free iWon email account would earn you 10 entries. Do a search, and that's worth 7 entries. Click on one of the listings in a search result, that's 1 entry. You can earn up to 100 entries per day toward the different prizes, and your totals constantly appear at the top of the screen.
The sharp-eyed will see that iWon's sweepstakes period ends on March 31. Does this mean the giveaways will stop? No. It's only to comply with legal requirements that say every sweepstakes must have a defined beginning and end, Steinman said. A new giveaway program is to be announced, since that's core to what iWon is about.
"Without the winnings, iWon is not the right name for the site," Steinman joked.
Behind the fun and games are the things you would expect from a portal: email, news, a personalized start page and, of course, search. At iWon, Inktomi gets to roll out its entire suite of search products: shopping search, crawler search and directory search.
As with places such as Yahoo and LookSmart, you'll find web sites organized into categories, which you can browse from the home page. Web pages are categorized automatically by Inktomi's "directory engine" product.
To do the categorization, each topic has about 10 to 20 web pages that are used as "training documents." Other documents that are deemed similar to these web pages in content wind up in the same category. By default, the Inktomi directory engine ships with 7,000 "trained" categories already populated with listings. Then, its partners can add new categories or manually edit listings, as desired.
I would say that humans still do it better, and even Steinman admits, "We've had to do some editing," but the automated guide certainly is functional.
When you search, matching categories from the directory are shown first. After that, the "matching web sites" area displays web pages from Inktomi's crawler-database, just as if you were to do a search on another Inktomi-powered search engine.
How about getting listed at iWon? The key here is to be listed in Inktomi's database. If Inktomi has crawled your site, then your pages may appear within both the directory and web search areas. How to submit? The best way remains to go over to Inktomi-powered HotBot and use its Add URL page.
This always sounds confusing -- to submit to Inktomi, go to something that is not Inktomi. Additionally, with Inktomi having so many partners now, some of whom provide their own Add URL pages, there are unnecessary submissions that are occurring. To solve this, it's time for Inktomi to establish a master Add URL page within its own site. It could even be done so that if particular partners needed additional information, it could be gathered there. If this wishful thinking becomes reality, I'll let you know.
Overall, iWon has a gimmick, and the company knows that. But if the gimmick matches your interest (and cash is usually a winner), and if the information satisfies your needs, then there's every reason to use the site.
Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for one of the search engines to introduce what I'd call "themes." For instance, I can imagine Star Trek fans flocking to a site that uses the look and feel of one of the Star Trek computer consoles. Similarly, fans of rock stars or movies might get to choose a theme that interests them. Advertisers might even consider branding a site for a day. While gimmicks like these don't improve the quality of search, they can improve the overall search experience -- and that's also important.
Learn more about sweepstakes rules here.
If iWon Wins, Do Portals Lose?
Fortune, Feb. 7, 2000
But can iWon survive and thrive financially? A look at some of the numbers. One negative that this analyst finds is that the "just add water" approach that iWon used to build its portal means a possible low barrier of entry to imitators. But this overlooks the fact that not everyone can unite with a major television network, as iWon did with CBS. ABC is with Go, NBC is with Snap, and that leaves just Fox for any portal to partner with.
CBS's iWon Portal Play: Will Bribery Pay?
BusinessWeek, Oct. 6, 1999
An earlier article from BusinessWeek, dated in parts, but still helpful for understanding the CBS connection.
HotBot Add URL Page