Google Tops, But MSN Growth Good & Yahoo Switch A Success So Far


New stats from web analytics firm WebSideStory highlight the news often heard before: Google’s most popular, when it comes to search. But dig into the figures, and you discover that MSN is doing better than you might think. In addition, Yahoo’s recent replacement of Google results with those from its own crawler-based technology doesn’t appear to have cost it visitors.

WebSideStory’s StatMarket service measures search referral traffic to web sites. This means it can estimate how many people are driven to sites based on searches they perform.

In general, much-used search engines generate more referrals than less-used ones. Thus, having a high-share of search referral traffic can give a search engine bragging rights about being most popular.

Google Has Biggest Slice Of Referral Pie

On Tuesday, March 23, 2004, WebSideStory examined a sample of over 25 million visits and found that Google had the top share of search referrals, 40.9 percent. It was followed by Yahoo at 27.4 percent, then MSN at 19.6 percent:

WebSideStory also released trend data showing how all three search sites performed for the corresponding Tuesday over four years. Not surprisingly, Google appears as a giant success:


Yahoo’s Loss Not Google Fault?

The trend chart shows that Yahoo has lost share over the past two years, giving the implication that Google is responsible for this. No doubt that’s true, in part.

However, the real culprit to watch is that “Other” figure. WebSideStory didn’t break out what’s included in the other figure. But I do know from past releases from the company that for almost exactly the same time in 2000, AltaVista had an 18 percent share of traffic.

This traffic flowed right into Google, as AltaVista’s failure to maintain search quality caused its formerly loyal audience to seek another service. The flow of visitors was so great that I often refer to this as the Google-AltaVista “X,” because of how the two lines directly cross.

Google also pulled traffic from smaller services like Excite and Infoseek/Go that were in their dying days of popularity. But Yahoo itself? The WebSideStory figures show it was unhurt by Google until 2003.

That’s two years into the initial deal that Yahoo signed with Google to use its results. It’s also another sign that counters the conventional wisdom some hold that Google was “made” by Yahoo, a view I personally have never bought into.

To me, Google made itself primarily by gaining dissatisfied users from many other places than Yahoo (see also my past analysis of some NetRatings data that also disputes the conventional wisdom).

In addition, it’s not clear that Google’s even mostly to blame for the Yahoo’s drops that happened in 2003 and 2004. Reviewing the trend lines, you’ll see that MSN shows a rise for these periods. It’s possible that Yahoo’s drop may also be due to changes at MSN in terms of gaining some portal users over from Yahoo.

Giant Growth Has Settled Down

While MSN’s share remains tiny, it’s noteworthy that the service has shown recent growth that matches Google on a proportional basis. Below is a look at the figures for the past two years. It shows how much referral traffic has risen or dropped over the previous year, on a percentage basis. In other words, you get a proportional look at gains or losses.


Two things to notice here. First, getting giant gains from the dying search engines are a thing of the past for the risers of Google and MSN. Growth of referral share, while still in positive territory, is less than in the past.

In fact, I didn’t show all three years worth of growth change, because Google’s bar would have made it difficult to see the most recent trends. Its referral traffic growth was 142 percent for 3/27/01 compared to 3/26/02. I’d say it’s very unlikely it will see such triple-digit growth again, much high less double-digit growth.

The other important point is that MSN has kept relatively close pace with Google in terms of growth. And while Yahoo is in negative territory, it has at least eased the proportional drop over the past year.

Dropping Google Didn’t Hurt Yahoo

A key question many are wondering is whether Yahoo’s switch from Google to its own search technology has had an impact. The fear for Yahoo is that if its quality isn’t as good as the results previously provided by Google, searchers might start abandoning it.

Personally, I’ve felt Yahoo’s own search technology has often been close to Google’s and doubted many typical Yahoo searchers would even notice the change. Stats from WebSideStory for the beginning of this year that seem to support this:


The lines show the average of search referral traffic share estimated for Google and Yahoo for each month. As you can see, Google’s showing a rise. However, this hasn’t come at Yahoo’s expense. Yahoo, which dropped Google in mid-February, has so far come through the changeover apparently without any major loss of searchers.

Google Big Outside US

While search remains very competitive inside the US — even “dominant” Google doesn’t have more than half the search referrals — WebSideStory stats paint a different picture for some selected counties:

Country Google Yahoo
Germany 80.5% 5.6%
UK 65.6% 10.8%
China 72.6% 12.7%


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