New data this week from Hitwise shows Bing on a pretty impressive upswing in the search engine market share race. And while that's definitely something worth pointing out and taking notice of, it's not really earth-shattering. It's definitely not a sign that Bing is about to overtake Google in the search marketplace, even though that's exactly what Mashable seems to think.
The Experian Hitwise Report
First things first… the data. The Hitwise report shows us February 2011 and March 2011. It looks like this:
The first thing I have to ask is this: the far right column is misleading. The way you calculate month-over-month data is to subtract the first number from the second, then divide by the first. But since the first two columns are percentage-based numbers… it makes the percentages in the month-over-month column confusing. For instance, Bing.com did not grow their market share by 6 market share percentage points… rather… the growth of their March market share is 6% of their February market share. That may seem silly now, but it's going to become important further down the page.
So what we see in the Hitwise report is essentially what we've seen for several months… slight increases for Bing, slight decreases for Google. Whoopty-doo.
There are a number of reasons why we need to have a measured response to data like this, and I'll do my best to run them down for you:
Nobody's Numbers Can Be Trusted
Absolutely every source you can find for numbers about search market share uses projections. For instance, Experian Hitwise tracks the behavior of 25 million opted-in users, and bases their numbers on that. And 25 million is an awful lot of people. But it's still nowhere near the total of Internet users. It's still… at best… a cross-section.
There are probably good trends and lessons we can glean from reports like this, but it's hardly scientific evidence. It's extrapolation, not precision. Compete, Neilsen, Alexa… all those guys… they all do the same thing: measure what a small portion of the public does and use that to draw conclusions about the entire Internet population.
Fair enough for research and discussion. But I'm not putting my money on any of them being dead accurate.
Bing Data Now Bloated
Ever since Microsoft and Yahoo reached an agreement to let Bing power Yahoo's search capabilities, Bing's numbers are artificially inflated. In fact, the Hitwise report calls it a race between Google and "Bing-powered-search." Yes, Bing powers more searches now than they did a year ago, but only because they bought their way in. Let's not act like this 30% number is representing true growth of 14%, because it's not. Google could buy Yahoo and steal that market share right back.
Let me use a peanut butter analogy. I know for a fact that my local supermarket's store-brand peanut butter is the exact same product inside the container as a major leading brand of peanut butter–let's call it Jiff, even though it isn't Jiff. But it's the same exact stuff… one container gets a major-brand label slapped on, and the other gets a cheesy-looking store-brand label slapped on. So… if my store brand starts selling tons and tons of peanut butter all of the sudden, does the national brand get to claim those sales as their own? Would you call my store brand's sales bump an increase in "Jiff-powered peanut butter sales?" Of course you wouldn't.
Search users at Yahoo don't know who's powering their searches. They just search. So these numbers, when combined to form "Bing-powered search," aren't reflective at all of consumer choice.
Mashable's Ridiculous Conclusions
Mashable decided that seeing Bing Bing-powered search now over the 30% mark was worthy of a huge, uninformed conclusion: That Bing would overtake Google sometime in the next year. Holy overstating the situation, Batman!
Mashable takes the far right column–the one that measures percentage of change… not market share percentage–and creates their own speculative graph of the future. But they've completely misunderstood that far right column:
We decided to graph out the answer to that question. In this scenario, Google drops 3% of its market share each month, while Bing gains 5% each month. Of course, this assumes sustained growth and sustained losses on the parts of both search engines.
Ummm… no. It assumes you don't understand how month-over-month numbers are calculated. Here's the ridiculous "theoretical" Mashable graph:
Let me spell it out: Bing isn't gaining 5% market share every month. The growth of their market share from one month to another is 5%–this is measured only against themselves, not competitors. There is actually a huge difference between the two.
Not to mention that extrapolating graphs like this can quickly lead to nonsense. For instance, taking Mashable's graph, I can see that by January 2013, Google will actually have negative market share, and Bing-powered sites will have over 100% of the market. By that same logic we could say that a hockey team that scores two quick goals in the first period is on pace to score 20 in the game. It's just not good math in the least.
Update: It appears I'm every bit as dim as I accused Mashable of being, and have misinterpreted Mashable's grasp of the numbers. My sincere apologies to them. I took the statement "In this scenario, Google drops 3% of its market share each month, while Bing gains 5% each month" to mean Mashable was misunderstanding the month-over-month column. But they weren't. They said "drops 3% of its market share" and I read "drops 3% of the market share." Subtle difference in language, but huge difference in meaning. Their graph plots the month-over-month growth numbers correctly, if we assume the trends all continue (which they won't). But it's still a ridiculous graph–I'll stand by that.
Don't put too much faith in these reports. They are projections. They can be extremely valuable for spotting trends and serving as loose guides… but they aren't exact, and the five or six major metrics firms all have numbers that conflict with each other.
Similarly, don't be too hasty to draw vast conclusions based on these reports. Is Bing gaining market share? Sure. Is Bing's relatively-tiny growth worth talking about? Sure it is. Is Bing gaining enough to start speculating about Google's downfall? Not remotely. Google is still the king, and will be so well into 2012, I can assure you.
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