Thu, Feb 26, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Could Google become popular to a bad degree?

The leader in Internet search is going from strength to strength, but concerns are also growing that antitrust issues will emerge

By Randall Stross  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The popularity of Google’s search engine in the US just grows and grows. In the past three years, its market share gains have even been accelerating, making some people wonder whether the company will eventually obliterate what remains of its competition in search.

Certainly, antitrust scrutiny is a growing worry at the Googleplex. Last year, the company abandoned a proposed advertising pact with Yahoo when the US Justice Department said it would file an antitrust lawsuit to block the deal. Last week, a small Web site operator, TradeComet.com, filed an antitrust action against Google, accusing it of unfairly manipulating its advertising system to harm a potential competitor.

When I asked to speak with Google’s chief economist about why Google’s market share gains were accelerating, Google’s press office also gave me, unrequested, a second, separate appointment with Dana Wagner, the company’s “competition counsel” — that is, its point person on antitrust issues.

Google maintains that its lead in the Web search market is tenuous, saying that with a simple click of a mouse, a user’s loyalty could evaporate at any moment.

But consider this. As recently as July 2005, Google was ahead of Yahoo in market share by just 6 percentage points, at 36.5 percent to 30.5 percent, according to market research company comScore. Today, however, that advantage is much wider at 63 percent to 21 percent.

“You almost feel sorry for Google,” said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the Web site Search Engine Land. “They’re doing a good job and people are turning to them. But when they pass 70 percent share, people are going to be uncomfortable about Google becoming a monopoly.”

Google does not register gains every month. The comScore numbers for last month reflect a 0.5 percent drop in its share from December and a 0.5 percent gain for Yahoo. But according to Hitwise, another online measurement service, Google has already surpassed the 70 percent benchmark. It estimates that Google has 72 percent of the US market against 17.9 percent for Yahoo. Microsoft’s two search services, MSN and Live.com, constitute a distant third, at a combined 5.4 percent.

Sullivan said that while Yahoo’s search engine benefits from traffic from Yahoo Mail and other Yahoo sites, its ability to pull in search engine users from outside its own borders is relatively weak.

Many Web site owners who track where their visitors come from report that Google’s search engine now refers 80 percent to 90 percent of their visitors. For instance, almost all visitors sent by search engines to Stack Overflow — a community of software developers raising and answering programming questions — are from Google. Last month, Stack Overflow received more than 3 million visits referred by 22 search engines. Of those, 99.34 percent were from Google.

Jeff Atwood, a co-founder of Stack Overflow, said: “I have no beef with Google. I like Google. But I’m concerned. If you project this trend forward four years, just follow the graph. A world in which there is no competition strikes me as unhealthy.”

At Google, Hal Varian, its chief economist, and Wagner said that the public was not blindly loyal to any one search engine. They cited a recent survey by Forrester Research in which 55 percent of adults polled used more than one search engine every week.

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