Software

On the lookout for the next search winner

At SES conference, data lovers confirm which search engines are the most popular and find out how fickle Web surfers are: very.

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By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com

NEW YORK—If Oscars-like obsessive analysis is the mark of an "it" industry, then Internet search has arrived.

Here at the Search Engine Strategies conference on Monday, people packed the seats, walls and floor of an opening session, "The Search Landscape," in which researchers parsed the market to show the latest trends. Data lovers could confirm which are the most popular search engines—Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, in that order—or find out how fickle Web surfers are: very.

"It's actually a dynamic marketplace for how established it is," Ken Cassar, an analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings, said on the panel. "I'm not sure the leaders today will be tomorrow."

Sounds familiarly like film stars.

The popularity of the SES conference has ballooned with the earning power and efficacy of search-related advertising, a multibillion-dollar industry popularized by Google and Overture Services, a Yahoo subsidiary. According to one of the conference organizers, more than 1,500 people are attending the weeklong event this year, up from 1,100 last year and quintuple that in 2000, before the dot-com bust.

As the industry has matured, investors, advertisers and hopeful upstarts have attempted to look deeper into the trends and analysis of the industry in order to find their own niche or assess how to invest their money. Much of the conference this week is devoted to doing just that.

Competitive research, blog search and advertising tactics are among the most popular topics on the roster this week.

Google, as most people in the room already knew, is the reigning champion of the search market.

According to Nielsen/NetRatings, Google serves 47 percent of the search market, Yahoo serves 21 percent and Microsoft's MSN 13 percent. It measured the percentage based on the number of people who visit a search engine and then jump to another site.

But an overlap in usage between the three search sites is significant, according to Cassar. Forty-two percent of Google searchers are exclusive to the search king, but 58 percent also use Yahoo and MSN search sites. As much as 71 percent of Yahoo searchers two-time the Web portal, according to Nielsen.

"There's a surprising likelihood for change," Cassar said.

Many of the search engines have introduced applications to prevent defections as a result. Toolbars, for example, let people search from a set location on the Web, block pop-up ads and sometimes prevent spyware. According to ComScore Networks, because of the proliferation of toolbars, as much as 20 percent of the traffic to search sites is from those applications.

Still, many people eventually uninstall the toolbars because they either don't use them enough or they cause problems with their Web browser. As many as 12 percent of the people who have downloaded a toolbar uninstalled it in January, according to ComScore.

And according to ComScore, 20 percent of the heaviest users of search contribute to as much as 70 percent of the search volume. But heavy searchers are less likely to click on the ads, ComScore analyst James Lamberti said.

As a result, researchers suggested that new growth in search advertising will come from specialized industries such as sites for travel, finance or e-commerce. A slew of upstarts have emerged in the last year to seize on such niche search areas.

Chris Ryskiewicz, director of online advertising for e-commerce site Shopbop.com, said that in the three years since he first attended the conference, the market has become much more competitive. Prices for sponsored search ads have risen with more interest, he said.

But he's uncertain whether a deluge in data can help him in that regard.

"It's hard to process," Ryskiewicz said. "It's interesting, but what do I do with it?"

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