The number of searches on the Web in December surged by 55 percent, as Google Inc. siphoned market share from Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft MSN and accounted for nearly half of all searches, a research firm said Thursday.
The latest numbers from Nielsen/NetRatings reflected the growing importance of search among U.S. Web surfers, who conducted 5.1 billion searches in the last month of 2005, compared with 3.3 billion the same period a year ago. In the same timeframe, the number of people on the Internet in the U.S. rose only 3 percent to 207 million.
"Consumers seem to increasingly see search as their starting point when they go online," Nielsen/NetRatings analyst Ken Cassar said.
Oddly, people often start with a search engine, even when they could easily go to a site by typing its URL in a Web browser. For example, online marketplace EBay Inc. is among the top search terms, even though people could go straight to the site by typing in www.ebay.com.
"Whether it's out of laziness or ignorance, consumers' starting point is very much search," Cassar said.
Among the top three search engines, Google was the only one to gain market share, rising 5.7 percent year-to-year to 48.8 percent. No. 2 Yahoo Inc., on the other hand, saw its market share dip by 0.3 percent to 21.4 percent, while Microsoft Corp.'s MSN experienced a 3.1 percent drop to 14 percent.
While Google grabbed market share at the expense of Yahoo, MSN and smaller search engines, its two biggest rivals still did well in increasing the number of searches on their sites, even though the number of people online increased only a bit, Cassar said. Searches on Google jumped 75 percent in the month to 2.5 billion, Yahoo 53 percent to 1.1 billion and MSN 20 percent to 553 million.
In general, the use of search is increasing because search engines are doing a better job at delivering relevant results and at making available content that wasn't on the Web before, such as music and video. Google has been the most aggressive in getting offline content in its index, Cassar said, pointing to the company's initiative to digitize library books, a project that has been challenged in the courts by writers and authors claiming the project violates their copyrights. The lawsuits are pending.
"We're seeing an improvement in relevancy and a dramatic improvement in the amount of content online," Cassar said.
Nielsen/NetRatings's results were based on the number of searches conducted across 60 search engines.