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For Search Engine Use, Glass Almost Half Full

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For Internet-savvy folks, a day without a search engine might seem about as sensible as trying to drive a car with no gas.

But according to a new study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, not quite half of all Internet users even touch a search engine on a typical day.

Yet the 49 percent of U.S. Internet users who routinely make search a part of their online activities is a dramatic upswing from a Pew finding of 30 percent in June 2004, on the eve of Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) initial public offering.

The study points to both the rapid growth of search engines and the relative immaturity of the industry, suggesting that a market dominated by Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is still poised for considerable expansion.

Certainly that was what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had in mind when he spoke of search as a trillion dollar industry at the company's meeting with financial analysts last month. At that meeting, Ballmer emphatically reiterated his commitment to competing with Google in search and advertising, which was of course the impetus behind Microsoft's failed bid to acquire Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO).

In their study of search engine use, the Pew researchers cast a wider net than just the mainstream search engines, pointing out that search has become an integral part of content sites throughout the Web.

"Users can now expect to find a high-performing, site-specific search engine on just about every content-rich Web site that is worth its salt," they wrote.

Another key driver has been broadband uptake. An earlier Pew report had found that 55 percent of all U.S. households had a high-speed Internet connection.

"Of all the demographic variables we analyzed, the presence of a home broadband connection had the strongest relationship with a user's propensity to use a search engine on a typical day," the researchers wrote.

Segmenting the data, the researchers concluded that increased search engine usage correlated with youth and higher levels of education and income. The survey also found that more men than women reported routinely using search engines.