How Yahoo and Microsoft are Gaming the Search Market, and Why it Will End

Last Updated Jun 14, 2010 12:28 PM EDT

For the last several months both Yahoo (YHOO) and Microsoft (MSFT) appeared to have been gaining on Google (GOOG) in search market share. But as many analysts have pointed out, the companies have actually been relying on several tricks to boost their performance, rather than growing organically. Now comScore, which earns its living by measuring this data, has plans to put an end to their tricks.

Here's how comScore's Cameron Meiehoefer, obviously trying hard not to offend anyone, described the situation:

By providing search results that are highly relevant to the content being consumed by a user, properties like MSN and Yahoo! can provide intuitive and convenient content discovery experiences. Also, by providing search results in context across their network, those sites are able to leverage the size of their audience to expose more users to their search services.
Uh huh. The key here is to note that comScore didn't hesitate to call out the offenders by name. Translating from Analyese to English, what Meiehoefer is saying is that Yahoo and Bing are gaming the metrics by extending search beyond the traditional query model. Instead, they are sneaking "search" into activities on their popular MSN and Yahoo home pages, places that drive a tremendous amount of traffic.

Both companies have been flooding their home pages with links that appear to lead back to news articles. The trick is that these links are actually tied to search results, so when users click through to read the story it counts as a search, even though what the user did doesn't fall anywhere near the traditional definition of search.

But that ploy pales in comparison to Yahoo's slideshow search gimmick. The company decided to count each click from one photo to the next as a search, displaying results related to the images below the pictures themselves. This translated to a jump this past April from 17 million searches on Yahoo News to 190 million.

ComScore plans to change its methods beginning in July to weed out these kinds of artificial results, and the monthly data later this summer may come as a rude shock to some investors and advertisers. Analysts who weighted the results for the past few months to account for these kinds of tricks have found that Yahoo and Bing actually lost search market share to Google.

Image from Flickr user Yodel Anecdotal

  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.