Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has launched a new sweepstakes to boost the popularity of its MSN Search. The promise of cash and cool prizes may lure Web surfers to Microsoft's side, but how loyal will they be?

Microsoft is offering MSN Search users $1 million worth of prizes, including gift cards to a formidable list of consumer-centric retailers like Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), REI, Home Depot (NYSE:HD), and Williams-Sonoma (NYSE:WSM). Bigger-ticket items include home office makeover prizes and two-night stays in fancy hotels like the Four Seasons. In addition, winners can award cash prizes to charities or nonprofits of their choice.

Such contests are nothing new. Think of McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) perennial favorite Monopoly game, or Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) ongoing prize-packed countdown to the sale of its 1 billionth iTunes song. Such promotions have a good chance of driving traffic to corporations both on and offline. Even if the odds are stacked against them -- and they are -- consumers love playing these games.

MSN Search could use the extra boost, too. Statistics from Nielsen-NetRatings put MSN Search in third place at the moment, behind Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO). Although shareholders often scrutinize marketing costs, $1 million is a mere drop in Microsoft's $34.7 billion cash bucket. The company might as well do this, if only because it can.

That $1 million should be money well spent if it can convince some people to at least try Microsoft's search functions. Microsoft has worked hard to revamp its search technology, but Google's established stronghold as users' search engine of choice is hard to beat. Of course, Microsoft had better hope that its search functions compare favorably to Google's; otherwise, anyone who tries it might go back to Google anyway.

My colleague Seth Jayson uses MSN Search and related tools exclusively now, and finds them comparable to Google in quality. (He's also rather fond of some of MSN's snazzy extra features.) One Fool has even recently argued that Google promises, but Microsoft delivers.

This sweepstakes the latest salvo in the search wars: If you can't beat 'em, bribe their users. Given its lag in the search market, Microsoft might as well give it a shot.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.