Search wars are about to get personal

Web surfers are anything but loyal when it comes to their favorite search engines, new research shows, as Yahoo and MSN seek to wrest the search crown from Google.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
7 min read
Web surfers are anything but loyal when it comes to their favorite search engines, according to new research that could give hope to Net titans Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN as they seek to wrest the search crown from Google.

On average, people use two different search engines a month, according to new data from market researcher ComScore Media Metrix. And while Google commands the most loyalty from searchers, even those people find the need to cheat sometimes.

"Everyone thinks there's this incredible loyalty to Web search engines, but in fact there really isn't," said James Lamberti, a research director at ComScore. "Consumers still switch around a lot, and loyalty can be quickly broken."


What's new:
New research from ComScore shows that while Google commands the most loyalty from Web surfers, people don't feel the need to stick to one search engine.

Bottom line:
Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN, which are investing heavily in search, have an opportunity to turn drive-by searchers into loyalists.

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To be sure, the search game is still anyone's to win, despite popular opinion that Google is the locked-in leader. The most concrete evidence of a tenuous perch is the transfer of the search crown from Yahoo to Google over the past few years.

Yahoo and MSN are investing heavily in search to make sure that they become the leading jumping-off point on the Web. Yahoo plans to launch new technology within five weeks, displacing partner Google, and MSN is regularly experimenting with new search formulas that it plans to debut later this year. Both companies are aiming to take advantage of their expansive audiences to convert new search loyalists.

Their efforts may be effective, too. People are often dissatisfied with their first search results, and switching providers costs little to nothing. Although a glowing report last week from Search Engine Watch awarded Google the "outstanding search engine" prize, the industry newsletter also noted that the company's search results are slipping.

Google's chief scientist Craig Silverstein disputed that claim, citing internal research that shows it has improved relevancy and searcher satisfaction over time.

Internet surfers flocked to Google in recent years for its targeted search results and minimalist style, helping make it the No. 1 search engine when measuring the overall number of searches conducted on its site. Google had a meteoric rise among Web searchers following its first major search licensing deal with Yahoo in 1999 and then with America Online two years later. Google doubled its share of total searches in the last two years, according to ComScore, at the expense of rivals.

To measure people's loyalty to search engines, ComScore compared the average number of times people conducted a search in December with the average number of searches at Google, Yahoo, AOL and MSN. On average, those surveyed searched 28 times in the month. Google users came closest to that average, searching the site about 23 times. Yahoo and AOL users searched an average of 16 times, and MSN users 11 times.

That suggests that people commonly turn to alternatives for search results. And Yahoo and MSN have an opportunity to turn drive-by searchers into loyalists.

None of the top search engines serve the needs of half of the U.S. Internet search audience, although Yahoo had the largest share with 48 percent, or 52 million of that population in December, while Google reached 44 percent, or 47 million. MSN helped 41 million people, and AOL 31 million.

"There's a huge amount of people out there that are not using search functionality," Lamberti said. "They've got a very large untapped audience base to push this functionality. About 60 percent of people on MSN aren't using search--if they promote it, there's a good chance they'll get trial."

An undedicated bunch
Jupiter Media, another market researcher, plans to release data of its own that shows searchers are capricious. Although people commonly return to one search engine over and over, they often use two to three others as safeguards, Jupiter analyst Gary Stein said.

"It's not a zero-sum game," Stein said. "Toolbars, e-mail don't seem to make much of a difference--it doesn't lock out the competition."

Search is integral to all the players' plans, because it's become a valuable source of ad revenue--an expected $2 billion this year--and it serves as a jumping-off point to numerous other services, including shopping, news, classified ads and personals listings.

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But Web surfers have long been trained to explore multiple sites, thanks to pages at Yahoo and others that aggregate links to many Web services. Now that search-related advertising has proven lucrative, they want to encourage exclusivity.

"That notion of bebopping around the Web is ingrained," Stein said. "But now they want you to connect yourself and never stray."

To inspire loyalty, all the major providers are cooking up ways to make their search services "sticky," or encourage repeated, long visits. Web portals have long sought to make their sites sticky through applications such as e-mail, news and discussion groups. But now that mandate has turned to search, given that more dollars are up for grabs.

MSN and Yahoo are focusing on new personalization and customization features. And Google, which is widely expected to go public this year, will likely counter those steps, industry watchers say.

"Personalization is the primary way, outside of brand loyalty, to keep people," said Jim Pitkow, president of news search service Moreover. "And it is the name of the game right now.

"The minute providers start collecting valuable personal information on searcher preferences, that will make it hard to switch."

Yahoo and MSN are in the best position to tap their relationships with registered users to turn on personalized search, industry watchers say. For example, Yahoo could ask a registered user if personal data can be used to deliver more relevant search results to that person. Still, privacy concerns could play a role in such features.

Toolbars are one thing all the providers have tried to use recently to win over visitors. Yahoo, Google and MSN are offering downloadable toolbars to search directly from the browser. Also, Google and others are embedding shortcuts for weather, flight information and package tracking into search results. But much more is being planned.

Yahoo, for example, plans to overhaul its MyYahoo customized service in the first quarter, when it will also replace Google's technology with its own, according to sources familiar with the plans. For its MyYahoo pages, the company recently started testing RSS (Really Simple Syndication) that lets people aggregate news sources onto a customized Yahoo page.

A personal touch
Yahoo spokeswoman Diana Lee said that the company plans to introduce personalized search sometime this year. Such a service would likely track, with his or her permission, a visitor's physical location, personal preferences and search history to deliver more relevant results.

"Personalization is something we're focused on, so we can provide more value to the search experience," Lee said.

Meanwhile, Google may become more portal-like with "my" territory of its own. The company recently updated a domain-name registration of the Web address "MyGoogle.com" with Network Solutions, which was first created in 2000.

Google representatives said that the company registers domain names as a matter of practice but that there is no imminent service linked to MyGoogle.com.

Google's Silverstein said the company is continuously focused on improving search, and by doing that, people will return. "The key is to make sure that the user gets what they're looking for at Google," he said. Outside of that, he would not comment specifically on developments into personalization at Google.

Last year, Google started testing technology to deliver more localized results. It now uses "geotracking" technology to determine the physical location of a Web page, so it can better serve up results to local queries such as "San Francisco eateries."

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MSN, too, has bolstered testing of its own search technology, including personalizing news for visitors abroad. MSN recently updated MyMSN with improved features for cataloging news.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates said two weeks ago at a conference in Davos, Switzerland, that Google "kicked our butts" in search but that the software giant is working to remedy that with new search technology for next year.

Through its coming Longhorn operating system, Microsoft plans to integrate Web search into the desktop. MSN also has started testing new formulas for delivering search results and related text ads through its test site.

Customer personalization also is a top priority for the company. Microsoft is testing technology that lets people search from a toolbar on the browser, detects their news preferences, and delivers relevant links automatically. It also updated its MyMSN news pages recently, with features to drag and drop preferred content onto the page.

Media executives postulate that Yahoo's and MSN's relationship to visitors and advertisers will help their position against Google.

"People say in (Silicon Valley), 'Why would you use anything else but Google?' But Yahoo and MSN can be powerful competitors," said David Smith, president of Internet marketing company MediaSmith.