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Microsoft is splashing nearly $500m in cash on a price comparison and survey company, most of which it is going to immediately sell on.

The software giant said it will acquire Greenfield Online Inc, the big daddy owner of Ciao, a group of European price comparison, shopping and consumer review sites based in seven countries. Collectively, Munich-based Ciao claims to reel in more than 26.5 million unique visitors per month.

Microsoft has put about $486m in cash in the shopping basket with the transaction expected to close during the fourth quarter of 2008. Greenfield shareholders will get $17.50 a share from the deal. But the lion's share of Greenfield's business is online surveys - which Microsoft has already agreed to sell off to an unnamed buyer.

Ciao’s tech program, online community and merchant partners will all be folded into the MS Live Search platform.

Greenfield had already agreed to be taken over by private investment firm Quadrangle Group. Microsoft presumably trumped its offer. As part of divorce proceedings Greenfield will cough up $5m to Quadrangle.

Redmond execs have been puffing and panting at the heels of search engine start-ups and web advertising wonks in an attempt to play catch-up with market leader Google, as well as convince Wall Street Microsoft is relevant to the web search business. In recent months it's tried to shoehorn its way into the biz by paying people to use its search engine and tying up a crafty banner ad agreement with Facebook. And it's also been playing a risky semantics game.

But Microsoft’s not really making the in-roads it would like to. MS bagged less than ten per cent in the total number of US search clicks last month according to ComScore’s recent stats – once again putting the firm a distant third behind Google and Yahoo!. ®

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