SearchThis: Keys to the Search Kingdom

Google is talking, Yahoo! is mapping, video makes the world go round, but the universe of all things search still boils down to one key principle: he who owns the audience owns the search business.

Google, Yahoo! Search and MSN search own the market, at least according to Hitwise's August 2005 United States Online Search Report. Audience share, demographic analysis and search behavior combined provide us with key insights into the minds of searchers everywhere.

Of course, with the news of Yahoo!'s humbled advertising overhaul last week (I'll get to that in a minute), advertiser relationships have to take a back seat to gaining audience love. Peripheral services like instant messaging and maps of the world have yet to affect audience share substantially, but defining the who, what and where of search activity is still the top priority.

The top line

Hitwise reports the big three search sites (Yahoo!, MSN and Google) account for nearly 73 percent of all search activity. Google is the strongest and still owns almost 40 percent of online searches, while trailing Yahoo! and MSN own around 18 percent and 15 percent, respectively, for the week ending July 23.

Even better than audience market share by visitors is the telling average session time data that indicates Google audiences tend to spend nearly twice as much time on the site, with an average session of over 12 minutes compared to MSN's six and one half minutes.

Does that mean it takes a searcher twice as long to find what he's looking for on Google?

Possibly, but Hitwise attributes longer session times to the image search taxonomy -- because users can view results on the search site, they tend to stay on the page longer. Speaking of image search, Google rounds out the top five with a nearly four percent of all searches and a 13-minute session time frame. Yahoo! image search ranks sixth in the top 10 search and directory sites with about one and a half percent of all searches.

In the trailing-but-gaining category, Ask.Com is slightly ahead of two percent of all search activity, ranking fifth in the top 10. AOL is just shy of one percent; most notable is the addition of My Search to the list at just over six-tenths of one percent of search activity.

Search till you shop

Search activity doesn't end at the directive entry point dialogue box. Downstream activity tells a story in and of itself. The Hitwise data clearly indicates a propensity for shopping among searchers. Google, Yahoo! and MSN visitors are all hovering above 10 percent of traffic heading out to shop after concluding search activity.

Ask Jeeves ( shows a significantly higher percentage of visitors moving into the shopping category at 15 percent after a search. Hitwise also notes that the Butler sent the largest percentage of visitors into lifestyle content areas, averaging nearly two percent higher than Yahoo! and MSN. visitors indicated a higher percentage of visitors being sent to education and business and finance sites as well.

Among other top downstream destinations, Google and Yahoo! led the way with news and media references, while Yahoo! led the travel search category by a slight margin of two-tenths of one percent at 4.73 percent.

Mapping, local, and cave man search speak

If you needed proof that men aren't interested in asking for directions, take a look at the local search battleground. Hitwise notes that Yahoo! users tend to be female and head on off to map sites after visiting local search sites. Over 18 percent of downstream visits from Yahoo! local went to 

Downstream visit data from local sites may also indicate a need for improvement in the category. Over 21 percent of visitors to Google Local went either to,, SuperPages, Froogle or Google Images, while only about 10 percent of Yahoo! Local visitors went to other directional search sites. Providing good quality local information has always been a problem for search destinations. Either consumers aren't finding what they want, or they really want second and third opinions on the information they receive. 

Elsewhere on the local front, Google has shown a 61 percent increase in market share of visits over the last six months while Yahoo! Local has over four times the traffic than its closest competitor, Google Local. Yahoo! is still on the rise, though: traffic to Yahoo! Local increased 14 percent for the same time period.

Another key element in the report worth noting was the query behavior profile. Despite conflicting reports that users are beginning to graduate away from one- or two-word queries, an average of 87 percent contain one or two words on top search sites. The only obvious exception to this is Ask Jeeves with 30 percent falling into the three-plus category. So much for having an adult conversation with the search box.

That's it, I am switching to Google

With the ongoing battles for audience share sorted out for another three months or so, I'd like to take a moment to address the Yahoo! Search problem by saying this: let he who is without search sin divert the first listing.

In case you haven't read the boat load of blog postings on Yahoo! Search's recent faux pas in search land, Yahoo! has been having some trouble with its search advertising system since an overhaul was attempted last weekend. Many advertisers have not been able to access their accounts or track and adjust bids.

I have gotten a little over 100 communications from various sources asking me to admonish Yahoo! for screwing up their lives, big time. A few even threatened to pull listings from Yahoo! to spend the money with other providers. Good plan, that'll show em. For a little extra fun next quarter, maybe Yahoo! should pull down the organic listings and serve only paid ads for a few days. Now there's a scandal.

I have spoken to many clients this and last week about this situation, explained the possible impact along with our contingency plans, and we all got on with our day.

For the life of me, I can't figure out what all of the whining is about. Yahoo! clearly didn't do it on purpose. It's not as though they needed to fudge the third quarter numbers by hosing down the advertiser base. Sure, there were a few days of listing desperation, and every time there's a glitch someone claims to have lost millions in the shuffle, but that is the nature of our business.

For heaven's sake people, wipe the wet noses and get back to work.

Additional resources:

See how search engine preference influences a consumer's susceptibility to advertising, from BIGresearch.

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan's current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Ryan is chief strategy officer at
Zunch Communications.