Bing nudges out Yahoo Search -- but mobile holds the key

The next explosive growth in search will take place on mobile platforms, where Google dominates -- but that's changing rapidly

The Nielsen Company reports that Microsoft's Bing has just barely exceeded Yahoo Search in U.S. market share. Google continues as top dog, but Bing's showing some growth, while Yahoo's fading ever so slightly.

While Nielsen's numbers rate a short perusal, the drama unfolding behind the scenes shows a much larger shift than the numbers would have you believe. Here's the rest of the story.

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Search engine market share numbers run all over the place, with different sites moving up and down a fraction of a percentage point every month. The terminology and methodology vary, but Nielsen pegs Google's U.S. market share in August at 65.1 percent, comScore puts Google's U.S. July market share at 65.8 percent, and Hitwise shows Google's U.S. August share at 71.59 percent -- yes, to two decimal places.

Nielsen says that Yahoo lost a considerable amount of market share in a month, falling from 14.3 percent share in July to 13.1 percent in August. Conversely, MSN/Windows Live/Bing went from 13.6 percent in July to 13.9 percent in August. Thus, the headline that Bing has overtaken Yahoo.

No big deal. Why? Bing and Yahoo numbers don't matter. They're smoke 'n' mirrors, Tweedledee and Tweedledum. According to an agreement that took effect Aug. 24, Bing (with a few small exceptions) is now the search engine behind Yahoo. As Nielsen says, "If we combined Bing-powered search in August pro-forma, it would represent a 26 percent share of search."

Looking at it from an engine perspective, Google has 65 percent of the U.S. market and Bing has 26 percent. Sure there are differences in how people get to the search engines, but when it comes down to selling ads on results pages, Microsoft's gone from 0 to 26 percent in short order: MSN Search started in 1998, but it limped along as an also-also-ran until Bing started a little over a year ago.

With something like 15 billion U.S. search pages delivered every month, Microsoft now controls more than 100 million U.S. search result pages a day. Ka-ching.

The next explosive growth in search will take place on mobile platforms, and Microsoft's scurrying to catch up. A couple of months ago, something like 98 percent of all mobile searches belonged to Google. That's changing rapidly. While Google's the default iPhone search engine, Bing's iPhone app has certainly helped increase mobile search numbers. Verizon has announced that it will include a Bing search app in its Android Marketplace, and it will ship the app with all new Android phones. The new Verizon Fascinate ships with Bing as the default search engine and, as noted in the Today @ PC World blog, "the only way to remove Bing is by hacking the phone."

While Google and Microsoft fight for market share, one big question remains unanswered: Who will pay for mobile ads?

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