Greg Notess
Reference Librarian
Montana State University
on the net

iWon: What Value for the Information Professional?

ONLINE, March 2001
Copyright © 2001 Information Today, Inc.


The iWon approach has proved successful for the company, and forthose few lucky cash prize winners, but it leads to many questions for the information professional.
New search engines and portals no longer pop up so frequently as they did in the recent past. With the Internet economy tanking and IPOs being postponed rather than rushed, it takes a creative business model to make a new search engine or portal succeed. iWon jumped into the portal wars in October 1999. From the beginning, the big difference–and selling point–for iWon was that by using it, you can be entered into cash sweepstakes. And iWon has given away millions of dollars at the same time that it has become increasingly popular. This is certainly a different approach from most other search engines.

The iWon approach has proved successful for the company, and for those few lucky cash prize winners, but it leads to many questions for the information professional. How can it fit in with the other Net searching tools in our arsenals? What does it search? How can it be used effectively? And what unique ethical dilemmas does it cause? This month's column takes a look at some of these issues, as well as at some of the unique ways in which iWon has approached the problem of search.


When iWon was established, the financial support for portals was based primarily on how many users visited the site. Success was measured in "eyeballs"–the more page views, the greater the income opportunity. The founders of iWon came up with the very simple and effective idea of giving away cash prizes to attract users: $10,000 every day, $1,000,000 every month, with a $10,000,000 yearly prize. Each activity on the iWon site gives registered users a certain number of sweepstakes entries, up to a maximum of 100 a day. At this point, only U.S. residents can register with iWon to win these cash prizes. That means that non-U.S. residents not only have no special encouragement to use iWon, there is a disincentive.

Throughout the site, iWon is constantly promoting its cash prizes and offering ways to increase your infinitesimally small chance of winning. And if you cannot even register, these constant reminders just get in the way of easily using the site. For almost every click that a user can make on an iWon page, there is a small number followed by the > symbol which represents the number of sweepstakes entries that you would gain if you click on that link. For example, "9 > Shopping" means that when a registered user clicks on the "Shopping" link, that user gets nine more entries of the maximum of 100 per day. This can make search results look a bit strange. At first glance, most people are used to seeing the first hit listed as 1 and the second as 2, but on iWon, each hit only has the number that represents the number of sweepstakes entries in front of it.


For the Inktomi search results, iWon can include results from Inktomi's GEN3 database.
The cash prizes alone may certainly attract users even if iWon offered no information content, services, or search abilities. Yet iWon has collected content from a wide variety of sites. It has a directory, a search engine, current news, and much more. On the search side, it does not have its own database. Instead, it gives results from a collection of partners: LookSmart, Inktomi, Direct Hit, Real Names, Moreover, and Fact City. Searches can also be limited to Top 10 Sites, News Articles, Stock Quotes, MP3/Audio, or Shopping.

Beyond the cash prize carrot, iWon has taken an interesting approach to packaging the results from these multiple databases. They are clearly separated in their own boxes with obvious attributions. The matches for Directory Categories (powered by LookSmart) appear at the top, followed by the Web Sites listing from Inktomi. For the Inktomi search results, iWon can include results from Inktomi's GEN3 database. Many other Inktomi search partners only pull results from what Inktomi calls its Best of the Web database, which includes maybe 110 million indexed Web pages. But for those partners like iWon that also use the GEN3 database, if insufficient hits are found in the Best of the Web database, Inktomi will then also pull results from the GEN3 database, which ups the number of Web pages searched to about 500 million.

Over to the right is another box for the Most Popular Direct Hits, powered of course by Direct Hit. Yet it is not a list of Direct Hit results. Instead, it is a list of various related searches that can be run against the Direct Hit database. Below the Direct Hit results is the link to a Shopping Search.

Other databases that may be displayed include Fact City and Moreover. The Fact City results sometimes appear at the top, above the LookSmart categories, under the heading Inside iWon and FactFinder. These are most often displayed for movie and sports information. At the bottom of the page, news stories from Moreover and Inktomi can show up under News Articles. While none of these boxes rep- resents unique content from iWon, each clearly identifies and separates the database source and content. With so many portals merging results from disparate databases, the clear delineation at iWon is a welcome approach.


The significant differences between the iWon simple and advanced search options can make it difficult to use it effectively for complex queries....
On iWon, the simple and advanced searches are quite different. On the simple search, full Boolean searching, nesting, and field searching are all supported, but strangely enough and despite the name, the advanced search supports none of those. The simple search has automatic adult content filtering, while the advanced search does not. The simple search will display only one page per Web site, while the advanced search will display results unclustered.

To make things even more confusing, the advanced search page still has two boxes from which a simple search can be run. The search form in the upper right-hand corner and the search in the box labeled iWon Simple Search are the two simple search forms. The advanced search is only available within the box labeled Advanced Search. This makes it much too easy to plan on doing an advanced search but mistakenly entering the search in a simple search form.

When using the simple search, iWon defaults to an AND operator between terms if no Boolean operators or other special markings are used. It also supports 0use of the - symbol for excluding records, double quotation marks for phrase searching, and the Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT. The operators must be entered in uppercase and can be nested using parentheses. The simple search supports two truncation symbols: the asterisk for unlimited truncation and the question mark for a single character. Field searching with title:, domain:, and link: is also available on the simple search. Thus the simple search can be used to create some very complex search statements.

Yet iWon insists on clustering the results from the simple search and only displaying one matching hit per Web site. The other matches from any one Web site are available under a "More results from" link. The simple search will give an explanatory error message for searches containing unambiguous adult content terms. For terms that sometimes have a pornographic meaning, the adult pages are excluded from the Web Sites section of the search. However, this is where iWon's multiple databases work against its intent. While the Web Sites section of Inktomi search results is generally clear of adult content, a click on any of the suggested searches from Direct Hit will very quickly bring the kinds of pages which the Inktomi results so carefully excluded.

The so-called Advanced Search does show all pages, unclustered by site and unlimited by the adult content filter. Instead of Boolean operators and the other search features available from the simple search, the advanced search requires the use of forms. Three search boxes are available along with the ability to turn on word stemming and to limit by preset dates. Any Boolean operation must be accomplished by using the "should include", "must include", and "must not include" drop-down choices to combine the three search boxes. Phrase searching can be used in any of the three boxes. The significant differences between the iWon simple and advanced search options can make it difficult to use it effectively for complex queries unless the searcher can remember the differences. However, careful use of iWon's full search capabilities can bring up hits unavailable from most other Inktomi-powered search engines and portals.


iWon offers an excellent combination of searchable databaes with one of the largest versions of the Inktomi database.
For the information professional, there are several disincentives to the use of iWon as well as questions about the appropriateness of its use. While iWon's Inktomi database appears larger and can retrieve records unavailable from HotBot and other Inktomi partners, iWon does not yet include all the advanced search features available from other Inktomi search partners, such as HotBot's advanced search page. Additionally, the surrounding portal ads and supplemental content contribute to making iWon pages slower to load than other search engines and portals.

Even more of a problem is the idea of using iWon within a corporate or public setting. If you are in the U.S. and register as a user of iWon, what happens if you actually win one of those cash prizes while at work? Who then wins? You or your employer? And do you lose credibility with the person you are helping when he or she sees the sweepstakes entries accumulating as you run the search? One approach, even for those who are registered, is to use iWon in the unregistered mode. If you have signed in on that computer before, just go to the bottom and log off. Unfortunately, iWon will then keep sending up prompts to register, initially in a pop-up window. Plus, all the ads and suggestions for entering additional sweepstakes still surround the actual search window and search results. A possibly more effective approach is to only use iWon when not working directly with a client. Use other search engines when the client can see what you are doing and then also check on iWon when doing follow-up or preliminary work. If useful results come from iWon, look at the source database and then see if you can pull the same results from another Inktomi partner or directly from LookSmart, Direct Hit, or Moreover.

iWon offers an excellent combination of searchable databases with one of the largest versions of the Inktomi database. It has functional search capabilities and can occasionally find hits that no other Web search service will pull up. However, for many information professionals, it brings with it too many problems to use publicly or as a first choice search engine. Instead, iWon may best serve the professional searcher as a personal portal (at least for U.S. residents that occasionally like to dream of winning large amounts of cash) where it can be watched as well to see if it will evolve into a tool that can be used more regularly on the job and not just at home.

Greg R. Notess (; is a Reference Librarian at Montana State University.

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Copyright © 2001, Information Today, Inc. All rights reserved.