'New' rating confirms Google's crown

ComScore says its new service for rating search-site usage is more accurate than rival offerings. But its data confirms what the industry has long suspected: Google leads the pack.

An audience-measurement business is raising competitors' hackles by claiming its new service provides more accurate data. But the company's conclusion that Google leads the search site pack, with Yahoo close behind, is unlikely to provoke controversy.

The service, qSearch, was unveiled Monday by ComScore Media Metrix, a consulting unit of ComScore Networks that specializes in consumer behavior. The service examines search queries entered into 25 portals and search engines by members of a pool of 1.5 million international Web surfers recruited through random phone-digit dialing and direct marketing techniques.

ComScore said the service would bring new accuracy to the task of measuring what consumers are searching for online. It criticized competitors for evaluating search sites through indirect measurements like visitor counts, citing data that shows that only 64 percent of people who visit a portal or search site wind up actually searching there in any given month.

"Historically, people have used unique visitors to a Web site?as an indirect means of quantifying search activity," said James Lamberti, vice president of ComScore Entertainment and Media Solutions, in an interview. "What's really needed is actual search activity and direct measurement. ComScore provides it for the first time ever."

The metrics firm also said its methodology would weed out multiple identical queries by the same searcher, along with searches performed by other search engines and searches performed automatically by computer programs called "bots."

The new service launches as search engines reestablish themselves as a staple of Web commerce. In a release, ComScore called searches "the most important source of advertising revenue on the Internet."

qSearch data "gives the portals and search sites themselves an understanding of their performance relative to the rest of the market," Lamberti said. "And the keyword-level detail gives marketers and advertisers the ability to maximize the reach and frequency of their overall marketing plan."

But ComScore's competition questioned whether there was anything significantly new about qSearch.

"I'm scratching my head as to what is it that they're offering that our product doesn't have right now," said Manish Bhatia, senior vice president of product development for Nielsen-Netratings. "Not only do we track activity on the overall portals, where search may be one component, but we drill down to see who interacted with and engaged with the search portion of the Web site. Those kinds of analysis have been available in our service since we launched three years ago."

ComScore insisted that its service was bringing new depth of detail and accuracy to search reporting.

"Nielsen's metrics are the standard measures--indirect search activity," Lamberti said. "The fact that somebody visited search.msn does not mean they actually searched. And you certainly can't understand how many times they searched, and what keyword they searched...ComScore provides all of that. We've gotten...dozens of calls in the last two days from marketers, agencies, financial analysts and the portals themselves saying, 'We've never had this kind of measurement in the market.'"

Yahoo takes the states
Whatever its originality, early numbers from qSearch, which include data collected since the beginning of the year, confirm what industry watchers have suspected for some time: Google leads the pack among search sites, with Yahoo--which uses Google's engine to produce search results for Yahoo sites--close behind.

Google.com accounts for 33 percent of all queries by English-speaking searchers, ComScore said. In the United States alone, Yahoo leads with 26 percent of the approximately 790 million searches performed in the states during the time covered by the qSearch report.

"We've seen (Google) move up to the No. 1 position in the last 12 months, based on worldwide activity," said Lamberti. "But Yahoo is much stronger domestically than people understood before our data became available."

ComScore attributed Yahoo's strength in the United States to its specialized sites like Yahoo Finance and Yahoo Yellow Pages, where more than half of Yahoo queries took place.

ComScore's first report offered good news for second- and third-tier search sites. Dogpile, a "meta search engine" that queries a range of other engines, had a "visitor-to-searcher" conversion rate--or the percentage of people who visit a site and then end up searching there--of 83 percent. Ask Jeeves, a so-called natural language query engine, scored a 75 percent conversion rate.

The ComScore data also suggest that search competitors are divvying up the market according to work and home searching.

For people querying engines at work, Google and Yahoo are virtually tied, at 27 percent and 26 percent of the market, respectively. AOL and Yahoo tie with 25 percent each for the at-home search market.

Among search providers that offer paid listings, Google shares the top spot with competitor Overture in terms of the exposure those paid results get. Sites with Overture paid results--including Yahoo, MSN, InfoSpace and AltaVista--took a total of 47 percent of all queries made in the first month of the year. In that time, sites with Google paid results--which include AOL, InfoSpace, Ask Jeeves, and Google itself--accounted for the same share.

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