mindshare, market share, and monopolies

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I talked on the phone today (why yes, I do still use analog communication media...) with danah boyd, who took me to task for my last post. Her concern wasn't with my negativity about Google, but about the extent to which the post made it seem that I'd become an unapologetic supporter of the Microsoft culture (or cult). Her argument was that in fact, Google doesn't dominate search, it only dominates among the technocrats--much like Powerboks are the toy of choice for social software geeks, but not for the world at large.

I was a little taken aback by this, because I'd been fully convinced that Google's dominant mindshare (when was the last time you heard someone use MSN or Yahoo as a verb meaning "search"?) reflected an equally dominant market share. My interest in seeing MSN succeed was never (and still isn't) about having a Microsoft monopoly replace a Google monopoly--it was, and still is, about there being legitimate competion in this space. I don't want anybody having a chokehold on online information access. So I set out to do some fact-checking. (I assume that the MSN Search folks have very detailed numbers, but I didn't want to ask for anything that I couldn't blog about.)

I started at the Pew Internet & American Life site, since they're generally my favorite source of solid stats on Internet use. In May & June of 2004, they conducted a survey on search engine usage. They reported on the results in both a memo from August 2004 and a more detailed report in January of 2005--the relevant piece of this survey found that when asked "Which search engine do you use MOST OFTEN," 47% of respondents replied Google , followed by Yahoo at 26%. MSN trailed well behind both at 7%.

In an attempt to find something more recent, I did some broader searches on search engine statistics and market share, and found a Business Week article from last month entitled "Google's Leap May Slow Rival's Growth." The article opens with this paragraph:

Nearly a year after Google's (GOOG ) IPO marked the start of a new phase in Web search competition, the upstart is making industry giants Microsoft's (MSFT ) MSN and Yahoo! (YHOO ) look like also-rans. Google's share of U.S. searches hit 52% in June, up from 45% a year ago, according to Web analytics firm WebSideStory Inc. By contrast, Yahoo's and MSN's share slipped to 25% and 10% respectively. Says Mark S. Mahaney, an analyst at Smith Barney Citigroup (C ): "People haven't been given a good reason to switch from Google."

I also found an article from February 2005 on SearchEngineWatch by Danny Sullivan, in which he cites data received from comScore. The results he cites show Google with a 35% share, Yahoo with a 32% share, and MSN with a 16% share. Here's how Danny describes that data:

The comScore Media Metrix qSearch service measures search-specific traffic on the internet. qSearch data is gathered by monitoring the web activities of 1.5 million English-speakers worldwide (1 million in the United States) via proxy metering.

Proxy metering allows comScore to see exactly how those within its panel have surfed the web. From this data, the company then extracts activity that's considered to be specifically search-related.

[...] The qSearch figures are search-specific but not necessarily web-search specific. For example, a search performed at Yahoo Sports would count toward Yahoo's overall total. That's important to understand.

So, what am I missing? I can't find any evidence that my perception of Google as the dominant player in this market is incorrect. If you know of research that contradicts this conclusion, I'd really love to know about it--please add a comment with a cite!

Right now, I don't think that Microsoft's search product is as good as Google's. And I think that what Yahoo is doing with MyWeb is in fact the killer app of search. My working with MSN for a year isn't going to suddenly catapult the company into a monopoly on web search (although it is giving me a fascinating view into how corporate culture influences the direction of products, not always in a good way). But I do think there's value in evening the playing field. Microsoft is going after search market share--that's a given. If I'm here, I can try to help them do it in a way that benefits the users of their service. If I'm not here, they only thing that changes is that my input into the product disappears. My presence has no impact on Microsoft's business practices or goals. But it might well result in some influence on the direction of their product development, and I'm okay with that.

At the end of the day, I still harbor a healthy distrust of most corporations and their cultures, regardless of how much I like the people that work there, or the products they produce.

Update, 2:51pm

SearchEngineWatch has a few other articles on market share. This one provides the May 2005 Nielsen NetRating figures, showing Google with 48%, Yahoo with 21.2%, and MSN with 12.4%.

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Upon doing an ego search in Technorati, i came across a disturbing blog: Dominos Pizza. One entry begins with "I talked on the phone today (why yes, I do still use analog communication media…) with danah boyd." At first, i was like no you didn't. And... Read More


The numbers are pretty much indisputable. Google is clearly the dominant search engine. Another thing to consider, and I tried to find some evidence to support this (well, not too hard), is that it's been my and several of my old colleague's experience that Google is also the search engine of choice for most public schools and libraries because of the plain interface and its (supposedly) superior compatability with filters. Which, of course, adds a whole new dimension to the problems of inequity you've mentioned here.

Google is clearly the undisputed leader of search right now. And, I hate to say it, but I actually think some competition from Microsoft would be a good thing (not that I really believe Microsoft is in a position to be much of a competitor in the short run). Of course, I am old enough to remember several other companies laying stake to this territory at one time or another. Eventually, I expect Google's ship will sail too. Nevertheless, there are several things that bother me about Google's current dominance.

First and foremost, there seems to be an overarching notion among the literati (and I use the term loosely) that Google is the end-all and be-all of search engines. That is sad. Yes, Google puts a solid product out front that performs fairly well when search needs are general and the information universe being indexed is fairly well structured (don't underestimate how important it is to Google's world that the web has HTML and XHTML underlying the content -- that is what makes it possible for Google to shield user's from taxonomies and ontologies), but there are other things Google does not do well. Precision for one.

It also bothers me that there were things I could do twenty years ago on DIALOG or BRS that I am unable to do using Google. Saved sets for another. Yes, you can modify a search in google, but you are really re-executing the entire search again. So what, you say? Well, perhaps I wouldn't care so much if I didn't know how variable the number of documents per domain was on any given day. But the truth is... the harvesting component of Google's architecture is fragile enough to mean I can't always be sure I am getting every document indexed in a given domain. (There are strategies to solve this problem, such as local Google Search Appliances which feed the central system, but these are the kind of details that tend to get lost in the rush to embrace everything Google.)

Enough for now, and thanks for your leadership at Microsoft, Liz.

Of all companies who understand the power of marketing, it seems incredulous that Microsoft isn't already the leader in search, if indeed their search product is superior to Google. And isn't this the same company who ended up in court over antitrust issues in 2000...now claiming that the playing field isn't level? *grin*

I would take Mark S. Mahaney's comment to heart: “People haven’t been given a good reason to switch from Google.” Who is Microsoft targeting with their message that they have a great search product? Is that message part of the problem? Is there some delusion that the 'Microsoft Brand' is sufficient for the product to compete in the market? Yahoo's My Web or even something as different as Mooter.com have a chance with better performance and the right marketing mix...granted, there is catching up to do.

Keep in mind that Google started off in the world of 'search' as a latecomer and, as you describe in these last two posts, isn't delivering a good quality product yet maintains a dominant position in the market... Thank god Microsoft never did that! (insert cynicism here)

Paul, I never said that I thought Microsoft's search product was superior to Google's--you must not have read this post very carefully. And I'm also not claiming the playing field isn't level--nor have I heard that complaint from anyone I've worked with in MSN search.

At no point in any of my posts have I said that Google isn't delivering a quality product. My last post did describe a problem I'd encountered with PageRank, and provided specific metrics to back that up--but I certainly didn't generalize from that to the overall quality of any of the company's products. To be honest, I distrust all of them--Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo--on some level.

All I've said is that I have concerns about _any_ company serving as the de facto gateway to online information. And I happen to agree with you completely that this is about products, not marketing.

(On a related note, I highly recommend reading danah boyd's wonderful "which evil nation state are you" )

Ah, I just re-read the post and saw the "evening the playing field" comment that I wrote. That was a poor choice of words, because it implies that I think that Google has (or had) an unfair advantage, which I don't believe at all.

A better choice of words would have been "creating a more evenly matched set of competitors," or "providing stronger competition for Google in this marketplace."

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on August 10, 2005 10:59 AM.

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