Is Yahoo’s Rise In Search Market Share About To End?
Yahoo has gained against Google for the past two months. But coming months might see gains stop and losses begin due to "switchback."
Another month, another gain for Yahoo in taking search share away from Google, thanks to Yahoo’s partnership with Firefox. What’s puzzling is that at this point, Yahoo should have already hit a “high water mark” for what that deal could produce. How’s Yahoo still posting gains? And why does it seem like those gains might finally end? Let’s explore.
A Deal With Firefox Boosts Yahoo Search
Yahoo and Firefox signed a deal last November to make Yahoo the default search engine for Firefox in the United States. Since Firefox has virtually no mobile share, the deal was most likely to produce desktop gains for Yahoo. That’s certainly happened.
Every month since the deal, Firefox has posted increases as reported by comScore, which tracks desktop search share in the United States:
For December 2014, the first full month after the deal was signed, Yahoo saw a 1.6% increase in its search market share, all apparently taken directly from Google. For January 2015 — figures that were just released this week — Yahoo gained a further 1.2% of share, almost all of which again seemed to come from Google’s loss.
Below are desktop search share stats in the U.S. for last month, according to comScore, for the three largest search engines of Google, Bing and Yahoo. Next to the percentage is the gain or decrease compared to November 2014, before the Yahoo-Firefox deal went fully into effect:
- Google: 64.4% (-2.6%)
- Bing: 19.7% (+0.1%)
- Yahoo: 13.0% (+2.8%)
As you can see, Yahoo has gained 2.8% of share versus Google’s 2.6% of loss. While the loss is fairly minor for Google, it’s a huge gain relatively speaking for Yahoo. Earlier in 2014, Yahoo dropped below a 10% search share for the first time that comScore has been tracking (over a decade), hitting an all-time low.
By the way, another service that measures search share also shows that Yahoo has posted gains. That’s StatCounter:
The chart above shows how Yahoo has grown. It gained 2.1% in the first full month of the deal, December 2014. It gained 0.7% in the second month. The gains came mostly from Google.
Here’s the desktop search share for the three largest search engines in the U.S. according to StatCounter, for January 2015. As I did with the comScore figures, gain or loss since November 2014 is also shown:
- Google: 74.6% (-2.9%)
- Bing: 12.6% (+0.2)
- Yahoo: 10.7% (+2.8%)
StatCounter and comScore use different tracking methodologies and systems, which is why the overall percentages don’t agree. But notice the change. Both have Yahoo gaining share at about the same amount that Google has lost.
Why The Yahoo “Tide” Kept Rising
Here’s the puzzle. It’s not a surprise that Yahoo saw the first month of initial gains. Suddenly, millions of Firefox users were flipped over to using Yahoo instead of Google as Firefox’s built-in search provider. But a second month of gain is surprising.
This is because by January — the deal’s second full month — everyone who could have been switched to Yahoo had been switched. That’s the “high water mark” I mentioned. There were no millions of more Firefox users to convert to Yahoo through the deal, since they’d already been switched. In addition, there were some signs that Yahoo’s share might slip because of Firefox users who might “switchback” to Google.
Despite this, the Yahoo tide has kept rising. What’s been pulling it higher? One likely candidate is that Yahoo’s promotion of Firefox is working to help the browser grow share, which in turn means more people using Yahoo when they search through Firefox.
How Yahoo Boosts Firefox
Yahoo has been promoting Firefox as a browser people should use since the deal went live. You can still see this happening at Yahoo today, if you visit the Yahoo home page, which has millions of visitors per day:
If this has been helping Firefox to grow share, we should see that reflected in some browser usage stats. While comScore doesn’t have those to share (we did ask), long-standing service StatCounter does. Those stats show that Firefox had a strong uptick from 13.6% of desktop share in the United States in December 2014 to 16.5% in January 2015:
Perhaps other things have helped Firefox grow beyond Yahoo’s promotion. Still, it appears one of the major factors.
Similarly, there could be other factors pushing Yahoo’s second month of gains. However, for me, the idea that Yahoo got a second boost by helping Firefox gain share seems a leading candidate.
No More Gains & Switchback Happening?
Google eventually reacted to Yahoo’s gains with a campaign to encourage Firefox users to switch back to Google, which began in January. So far, that hasn’t seemed to hurt Yahoo much. Instead, Yahoo’s real challenge to keep growing might be if Firefox itself hits a high water mark in terms of how much Yahoo can boost its share.
At some point, all the visitors to Yahoo’s home page who are likely to change to Firefox will have been exposed to the promotion. If so, Yahoo should see a leveling off of its share. But maybe Yahoo will continue to grow Firefox usage further and help its own search share in turn.
We won’t get comScore’s stats for February 2015 until the entire month is over and data processed, which is likely by mid-March. But StatCounter shows data for all of February that’s already happened. That data suggests that the high water mark has been reached and that Yahoo may now be losing due to switchback:
The change is so slight that the chart barely shows it. But here’s the change from January 2015 to what’s tallied for February 2015 so far:
- Google: 74.9% (+0.3%)
- Bing: 12.6% (no change)
- Yahoo: 10.4% (-0.3%)
Unlike in the previous two months, Yahoo’s shown no substantial gains. Instead, it’s showing a small loss — a loss that’s in the same amount that Google has gained.
The lack of a big gain suggests that the high water mark in terms of new users for both Yahoo and Firefox due to their deal has been reached. There are no further massive numbers of people using Firefox that can be switched from Google to Yahoo. Nor are there further massive numbers of Yahoo visitors who can be convinced to change to Firefox (indeed, StatCounter reflects a slight drop for Firefox usage so far in February).
The small loss is also interesting. The only good reason for such a drop is people switching back from Yahoo to Google. This suggests a potential switchback cost to Yahoo of 0.3% per month. Of course, we don’t have a full month yet. These are also only stats from one tracking service. One month also might not predict what may happen in following months. But it may be that Yahoo will slowly see some of its gains erode over the coming months, until a low water mark is reached where all those who want to switchback have.
The Mobile Factor
Another important thing to keep in mind is that mobile traffic has been missing from comScore and StatCounter stats that we and others have been covering. comScore doesn’t report on mobile search usage. StatCounter does, but the figures it has provided through press releases have omitted mobile (though tablet and console traffic is combined with desktop).
Mobile traffic is crucial these days, if you want to understand true search market share. Last year, Google suggested nearly half of its searches came through mobile. We asked Google about this again last month, if it had finally tipped. The company wouldn’t say. But it’s reasonable to assume that it’s nearly half-and-half, at this point.
Fortunately, you can get mobile-only figures from StatCounter if you change some settings. Here’s the mobile trend:
For mobile, Google’s not losing share. It’s actually picked up about 1% of share from Yahoo since November. This means when you combine mobile with desktop, tablet and console traffic, Google’s dip against Yahoo is less dramatic than the desktop-only view. Here’s the combined trend:
Before the deal was fully in place, Google had a 79.8% share for November 2014, for combined search traffic across all devices. That’s dropped to 78.6% for January 2015 — a loss of 1.2% overall (which Yahoo has mostly gained). That drop isn’t as dramatic as the desktop-only figures covered above, which have Google losing nearly 3% of share and Yahoo gaining about the same, since the deal happened.
The Coming Apple Decision
There’s no question that the Firefox deal has been a winner for Yahoo in rapidly building up notable share. But it’s unclear whether those gains will continue into a third month. As for Google, its losses are real. But they aren’t as deep when a complete traffic picture that includes mobile is considered. There are also signs that Google might slowly regain some of the share it lost to Yahoo in the coming months.
Of course, everything may change dramatically when Apple’s deal to use Google as default in Safari expires, as is expected in the next few months. A switch by Apple to Bing, Yahoo or perhaps something new like Siri as a search engine would bring a big gain for those services and a large, though not crippling, loss for Google. A renewal of Google would leave that service safe as the largest in the U.S.