Lies, Damned Lies, And Search Share

Last week, Business Insider reported that comScore's data, which showed Yahoo and Bing gaining market share against Google for the past two months, is misleading. The increase being shown by the two -- shall we call them underdogs? -- is generated pretty much entirely by "contextual search." In other words, it's not that more people are thinking, "Good question! I'll Yahoo! it," or, "I really need a decision engine instead of a search engine for this query." Instead, what's happening is that Yahoo and Bing are disguising search queries as normal links and slide shows. To you and me, we've just navigated normally, but to comScore, Google just got owned by the Bartz-Ballmer alliance.

Business Insider's coverage was scathing, to say the least, describing the practice as "stuffing the ballot with fake searches." How pathetic can the "little guys" get? Google continues to dominate in core search, launching powerful initiatives like Caffeine, its new Web indexing system ("Now with 50% more fresh flavor!"), while Bing sheepishly withdraws its ill-fated Cashback program. Shouldn't BingHoo be focused more on improving the actual search experience than on manipulating the appearance of popularity?



So, yeah, their behavior is dodgy, doubly so because a respected organization like comScore is public about their need to reformulate their algorithms in order to take these questionable links into account. But part of the problem is that the distinctions that delineate the various Web services are increasingly blurred. Consider, for example, that in the U.K. last month, social networks had more traffic than search engines. But according to comScore's own definition, there's a big overlap between the two types of site:

Traditionally, the industry has thought about a "search" event as a submission of a query that subsequently presents a set of results to a user. comScore's definition of search requires that the user be presented with search results and be able to completely change or refine their search directly from the result page. This encompasses the traditional "text box" query, as is the case with the major search engines' main search entry point.

This definition is why people continue to delight in pointing out that YouTube is the second largest search engine, and I'm sure Facebook ain't doing too bad either. So what's the point of trying to game a system to get on top of just one measure of search traffic that is decreasing in relevance?

Well, for one thing, core search is still a multi-billion-dollar industry, and BingHoo are still in the fight. Obviously, they're hoping advertisers will perk up at their "momentum" and back a winning horse -- or at least one with four working legs. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, pointed out that "people looking to make a decision are often people looking to buy," meaning that Bing's Decision Engine positioning can work in their favor, if advertisers see them as a category leader.

But they're a long way from being a category leader, and these latest shenanigans sure don't help. The 70 basis points (equal to 7/10 of one percent) they gained didn't garner them any of the million dollars a month BP is spending on paid search, for example, and that was before Yahoo and Microsoft became the untrustworthy purveyors of unreliable search data.

The manipulation of statistics is the last resort of the losing side. Come on, Ballmer. Come on, Bartz. You're too good for that.

Or do you think I'm overreacting? Let me know in the comments.

4 comments about "Lies, Damned Lies, And Search Share".
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  1. Norman Yerke from New Life Ventures, llc, June 15, 2010 at 11:46 a.m.

    Good morning, Ballmer and Bartz would not have to resort to the kinds of games outlined in your article if they would simply listen to my idea which would increase their market share by 15 to 20% within one year....sound outrageous....check my success record on

  2. Chris Vinson from Vinson Advertising, June 15, 2010 at 12:10 p.m.

    Great article. It shows another important reason to have an ad agency. We cut through clutter like this in all media.
    They've been finding ways to manipulate numbers since the days of Ben Franklin (A great autobiography if you haven't read it). Sometimes the spin they add inflates their true value by 1000% or more. Buyer beware!

  3. Marc Engelsman from Digital Brand Expressions, June 15, 2010 at 12:25 p.m.

    C'mon folks, do we really need to parse percentage points? It's not like we're doing day trading with our paid search buys. Look at the big picture trend and you'll see not much has changed in share. And maybe then you'll also see that ytd search volume growth is slowing which may be worth a separate discussion...

  4. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, June 15, 2010 at 12:45 p.m.

    Who only uses one search engine? If it takes me four searches on Google to find what takes one search on Bing, does that mean I'm four times as 'loyal' to Google or that Google is getting 4 times as much usage?

    I use Google, Bing, Yahoo, LinkedIn, whatever it is I need to find whatever it is I want quickly. I use three different browsers, preferring chrome but sites like Constant Contact don't work with it, but IE8 is fine, safari is fine, firefox is fine, and all of them have different default search engines. Dithering over 7/10ths of a point seems to be focused more on making SEO more legitimate than actually making it more useful.

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