Browser usage reports: Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Chrome briefly overtook IE in the browser wars -- or did it? The devil's in the details of how StatCounter and Net Applications count users

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According to Microsoft, Net Applications normalizes its numbers based on the CIA World Factbook Internet population numbers -- which is to say, the estimated number of (frequent or infrequent) Internet users in each country. To use Net Applications' own example, "We compare our traffic to the CIA Internet Traffic by Country table, and weight our data accordingly. For example, if our global data shows that Brazil represents 2 percent of our traffic, and the CIA table shows Brazil to represent 4 percent of global Internet traffic, we will count each unique visitor from Brazil twice. This is done to balance out our global data."

Ignoring for a moment the question of how the CIA estimates the number of Internet users in China and whether the average Internet use per CIA-counted person in Brazil is close to the average use in, say, India, Net Applications hasn't made it clear if it's normalizing visitors based on their country of origin or based on the physical location of the Web page that's getting hit.

In the final point of disagreement, StatCounter counts hits -- page views -- while Net Applications counts daily unique visitors. That's a big difference, particularly when you consider that "unique" doesn't mean unique individual, it means unique IP address. Now you see why the numbers vary so widely.

Which one's right? Neither. Or both.

Clearly, StatCounter takes a head-in-the-sand, call-'em-as-we-measure-'em approach. If you're primarily concerned about browser use in StatCounter's major service areas -- the United States, Turkey, India, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and Thailand, in that order -- and don't worry much about prerendered pages in Chrome, its numbers have merit.

Just as clearly, Net Applications is faced with an impossible task of extrapolating worldwide data from tiny samples. Net Applications admits "although we have significant data from China, it is relatively small compared to the number of internet users in China." With geoweighting part of the Net Applications shtick, the small sample in China turns into big numbers in overall browser usage -- 50 percent more than the United States.

I've come to two conclusions. First, the facile StatCounter explanations for Chrome's increase on the weekends, counterbalanced by IE's increase during the week, don't mean much. Sure, it's possible that people like to play with Chrome on the weekend, then they're forced to drudge with IE during the week. But it's equally possible that the number of IE users in India decreases over the weekend, while the total number of browser users in the United States and Turkey (StatCounter's two largest contributors) stays the same.

Second, Microsoft's continued harping and harping and harping about Internet Explorer 9 market share on Windows 7 treads a fine line between self-serving and disingenuous. Microsoft quotes Net Applications numbers exclusively, and without knowing a lot more about Net Applications servers in China -- certainly the most heavily weighted number in the mix -- it's hard to give them much credence.

At least there's a silver lining: With Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 in the not-too-distant future, we're going to be treated to some fancy talk about worldwide browser market share on Windows 7 and Windows 8, encompassing both IE9 and IE10. Somehow, Microsoft will spin out numbers showing IE is taking over the world. I can already hear the obfuscating machines whirring up to speed. It should be entertaining.

This story, "Browser usage reports: Lies, damn lies, and statistics," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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