This past week I downloaded the newly released Firefox 4 web browser, which featured several noticeable improvements over previous versions.
As someone who lives and breathes search every day, my eyes were immediately drawn to the new look of the search bar in the top right corner of the browser. While it defaults to Google search, a dropdown enables you to access several different search experiences.
I began to wonder about the relationship that the search browser has with consumer search behavior.
Does your affinity for a particular browser make you more or less likely to engage with certain search engines? Do the default search options in browsers make a difference?
I thought it would be worth investigating whether any particular affinity existed between browsers and search engine usage.
(We must remember that correlation doesn't equal causation in these cases, so just because someone chooses a browser doesn't mean it necessarily caused them to be more likely to engage with a specific search engine. It's also possible that someone with a natural affinity for the Google brand, for example, might be more likely to be both a Chrome user and Google search engine user. In this case, the brand affinity is the cause and the browser and search engine selection would both be the effects.)
Browser Wars Heat Up
For a long time, Internet Explorer was the dominant web browser, but over the years Firefox emerged as a strong second player.
In late 2008 Google got into the browser game with Chrome, which has gained traction and also proven popular with a segment of Internet users. Chrome was notable for its speed, providing more competition for the established players.
More recently, both Mozilla (with Firefox 4) and Microsoft (with IE9) introduced new versions of their browsers that represent strong upgrades for anyone who used the previous versions.
Now obviously search engines have a vested interest in being the default engine and/or toolbar on your browser. Even though many users will customize their browsers to fit their search needs outside of the defaults (e.g., a Google toolbar on Internet Explorer), or just download and use the browser that is already aligned with their favorites (Google Chrome), not every Internet user is so discerning.
And this may perhaps explain why we see the affinity we do for search engine usage with different browsers, which the numbers below illustrate:
Google Chrome has the most obvious affinity for Google searches -- 87.1 percent of the searches that take place on Chrome are on Google. This represents a significantly higher percentage than the 64.9 percent share Google has in the total U.S. Internet universe.
Yahoo and Microsoft combined account for just 12 percent of search share on Chrome (8.3 percent and 3.6 percent respectively). Although it stands to reason that many of the peope who have downloaded Chrome are probably already loyal Google users, don't discount those that previously used other browsers (and in turn other search engines), and took a chance on Chrome and enjoyed their experience enough to keep using it.
Mozilla Firefox is an open source application that partners with Google for their default homepage and toolbar, but due to its extended reach these days, tends to be standard software present on most machines when purchased.
The fact that PC users have a choice perhaps somewhat lessens the Google bias from the dominant Chrome numbers, but those default settings would appear to still play an important role, with 73.4 percent of the searches on Firefox taking place on Google.
Yahoo (16.4 percent) and Microsoft (7.1 percent) have inched their way back up toward their overall combined total U.S. Internet share, but there is still a significant delta between those numbers and their total universe share.
Microsoft Internet Explorer
Internet Explorer has been the leading browser in the marketplace for many years, with Firefox and Chrome beginning to catch up. With Microsoft still controlling the lion's share of computer operating systems, their packaging of Bing with IE would seem to benefit its cause.
The value of this reach is apparent when we see that the Google search share on IE drops considerably below their overall market share, with only 55.8 percent search share. Bing and Yahoo finally catch up a bit, hitting 18.7 percent and 20.7 percent, respectively.
Considering that more than 60 percent of the core searches in the U.S. in February were performed on an Internet Explorer browser, those seemingly small slices of the total pie assume much greater importance than you might think.
Search experience, relevancy of results, and let's face it, behavioral inertia, are still the main drivers behind which search engines we use every day.
If you love Google, you'll find a way to use it anywhere. If you use Yahoo Mail, you probably have a Yahoo toolbar downloaded and you might use that for some of your searches. If you're an Xbox Live member, maybe you ended up downloading a Bing toolbar and that becomes your search engine of choice.
Even though such factors can strongly contribute to your search activity, don't overlook the influence the browser has on your search behavior. Browser choice and search engine usage are interrelated, so it's little surprise these companies are racing to improve their browsers in the hopes of gaining market share, which may help deliver incremental revenue such as increased search activity on their engines.
Only time will tell how these browser battles will play out. But whatever happens, we can be sure it will have some effect on the complexion of the search landscape.