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MSN Search Share Anyone's Guess

TORONTO -- Is MSN gaining or losing search share to Google in North America? Yes and no. It depends who you ask. But it may not matter.

According to data from comScore Networks and WebSideStory presented at Search Engine Strategies (SES) Toronto, searchers are looking at more than one search engine when making queries.

The SES panel "The Search Landscape" began with a presentation by Stephen Evans, manager of information services and merchant platforms of MSN Canada. According to Evan's data, the new MSN Search has helped MSN gain search share, particularly among Canadian searchers.

Google holds the top spot in Canada with 6.5 million users with MSN at number two with 2.1 million users. Yahoo! Canada holds the third spot at 1.2 million users. Evans did not cite US data.

Jay McCarthy, vice president of product and business development at research firm WebSideStory, offered his firm's viewpoint on MSN's share in the U.S. On a year-over-year basis in the U.S., he said, Google gained an additional 7 percent of searcher share, adding that the new MSN Search hasn't stopped the decline.

McCarthy also noted that in comparison to both Google and Yahoo, MSN Search's traffic drops on the weekends. He said MSN's weekend weakness was indicative of its audience being comprised of more business users than home users.

Overall, according to WebSideStory data, Google dominates search around the globe in some cases by wider margins than in North America. In particular, McCarthy said, Google's search share is over 88 percent in Switzerland.

Brian Segal, director of business development at comScore, said Google currently holds a 60 percent share with MSN at 17 percent and Yahoo at 16 percent in Canada.

Ultimately though, Google, Yahoo and MSN will continue to jockey for position in North America as search loyalties shift. According to comScore data presented by Segal, 44.2 percent of respondents to a U.S. survey noted that they'd be willing to switch from their currently preferred search engine to another one if it delivered improved relevancy of search results.

Beyond the assertion that searchers may be willing to switch, comScore's data also showed that a significant percentage of searchers are using multiple search engines. Sixty-one percent of users will use only one search engine during a search session, while 28 percent will use two.

"Users are not all that loyal," Segal said. He added that Google was once a small site, too, and that users shifted to Google because they felt they were getting better relevance. That experience could happen again, according to Segal.

WebSideStory's data offers more by way of user loyalty. McCarthy displayed a chart that showed an inflection point occurring over the last year where search engine queries have outpaced links as a principal method for navigation.

"Over the last year, different Internet links and search-engine queries have crossed over," McCarthy stated. "People no longer get to sites via links."