Here's a query for one of Greenfield Online's (NASDAQ:SRVY) popular online polls:

Why is Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) outbidding a private equity firm to pay $17.50 a share for Greenfield?

A) It's election time, and Microsoft is all about giving the people what they want.
B) It's looking for the pole position in poll positions.
C) Microsoft knows all about unanswered questions after its Microhoo dance.
D) None of the above.

The correct answer is actually the last one. Microsoft is buying Greenfield, but it will turn right around and unload the company's flagship Internet survey solutions business. It's just as well. Survey specialists like Greenfield and Harris Interactive (NASDAQ:HPOL) are heading into an uncertain future now that juggernauts like Facebook are letting marketing research seekers poll their members directly.

White-collar firms like Gartner (NYSE:IT), Forrester (NASDAQ:FORR), and ComScore (NASDAQ:SCOR) that roll up their sleeves to provide in-depth, proprietary research have moats, but a company like Greenfield that tries to poll the masses with viral gimmickry has plenty of challengers in an industry with minimal barriers to entry.

So what's Microsoft buying Greenfield for, if it's only going to flip the Web surveys that gave the stock its ticker symbol? You don't need a multiple-choice menu to figure that one out. Greenfield also owns Ciao Group, a collection of comparison-shopping sites that are popular in Europe.

Microsoft's move to matter to European shoppers who are scouring cyberspace for the best deals is telling. It shows that the company's gutsy Live Search Cashback service that was launched in May -- delivering rebates to online shoppers who find merchants through its shopping engine -- is here to stay. Microsoft wants to entrench itself as a viable source of retailer leads, just like sites such as FatWallet and United Online's (NASDAQ:UNTD) MyPoints. Ramping up its technology, breadth, and street cred by snapping up Ciao is a smart move.

It's not just about the actual shopping transactions. Even if Microsoft has to give away all of its commissionable sales, it's worth it. The key is attracting lucrative traffic, made up of consumers willing to make online transactions. It also doesn't hurt to wedge its way into the phone lists of leading retailers, who also spend a good chunk of change on online advertising.

Microsoft may not always do the right thing, but this time it's doing the bright thing.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of online surveys, as long as he doesn't have to take them. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this story. Rick is part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.