Explaining Google’s popularity

by Eszter Hargittai on February 25, 2008

I should be prepping for class, but I want to add an alternative perspective to a question raised about Google’s popularity. The Freakonomics blog features an interesting Q&A with Hal Varian today, I recommend heading over to check out how Google’s chief economist answers some questions submitted by readers last week.

The Official Google Blog takes one of the questions and posts an expanded response to it. The question:

How can we explain the fairly entrenched position of Google, even though the differences in search algorithms are now only recognizable at the margins?

Varian addresses three possible explanations: supply-side economies of scale, lock-in, and network effects. He dismisses all of these (see the post for details) and then goes on to say that it’s about Google’s superior quality in search that makes it as popular as it is.

I don’t buy it, especially the dismissal of the lock-in factor. While I realize that it seems as though another search engine is just a simple click away (and sure, technically it is), I have observed too many Internet users in my research to know that in reality it is not that simple at all. First, there is the lock-in that comes from having Google as the default search engine in some browsers (e.g., Firefox). Of course, related issues apply to other search engines as well. Why does Yahoo! still enjoy a sizeable market share in search at least in the U.S. one might ask? It is probably related to the fact that more people seem to have a personalized version of Yahoo! as their start page in their browsers than any other customized starting page. Or maybe it is because Yahoo! also offers sufficiently good search results.

This then leads us to another issue: the assumption that users carefully consider or realize that there are differences in what search engines return in response to their queries. There is room for much more research here (some of it one of my students may pursue soon), but based on what we know so far, some people tend to have a tremendous amount of trust in results presented by Google. One could say this is due to Google’s superior quality, but research has found that even when results are manipulated and the less relevant ones are offered up on top, some users will click on them presumably because they believe them to be the most relevant. (I’d really like to see that study replicated on users of other search engines to see how this compares across services. Also, additional tweaks to that study design could help us learn more about these issues.)

We still have a lot to learn about the extent to which users actually consider the quality of search engines when using them. Presumably as long as they find (or think they have found!) what they are looking for they will be satisfied. However, again, research (e.g., here, with more in the works) suggests that some users are very bad about assessing the quality of the material that shows up on pages linked from search engine results, which then puts into question their ability to evaluate search engine results quality.

I am not suggesting that Google is not a good search engine nor am I even suggesting that it is not necessarily the best search engine (although how one defines quality in this domain is tricky). I would love to see some really careful studies on this actually. What I am suggesting is that equating market share in searches should not be confused with quality of search results. I know that there are some very talented folks at Google working on search quality some of whom I know and with whom I have had very interesting and helpful conversations. I’m grateful for the work that they do. Nontheless, that’s a different issues. My point here is that I would not dismiss lock-in factors and others in explaining the service’s popularity based on what my research has taught me about how people use search engines.

I have to add one more note here as it is related and it is something I have been trying to insert into discussions of this sort for years. It may be helpful to remember that most search engine market share data look at proportion of searches not proportion of searchers. Since power users are more likely to be Google users (various data sets I work with supply evidence for this), I suspect that if we were to look at market share based on user figures Google’s share would be smaller than it seems based on figures about proportion of searches. I’ve been commenting on this for years, but the statistics that continue to be discussed concern searches not searchers. Of course, both figures may be relevant, but which one is more relevant depends on the particular questions asked. When discussing quality, it seems that proportion of users would be just as important to consider (if not more) than proportion of searches since presumably all users would want to use the highest quality search engine. Point being, if Google is so superior and that explains its popularity then why doesn’t it have a much larger market share especially regarding proportion of users?

UPDATE: As I note in the comments, answering the issues raised above by explaining why people turned to Google in the first place doesn’t work. The Web, its users and the relationship between the two in 2008 differs considerably from the 2001/02 scene so explaining migration to Google at that time says little about the potential to move from one search engine to another today.

UPDATE 2: Perhaps worth noting here is that I think of “lock-in” not in the completely restrictive sense of the term. Of course, I know that there is no technical lock-out from other options, my point was that given how people use the Internet for information seeking, something similar is going on nonetheless.



Bruce Baugh 02.25.08 at 8:27 pm

To be honest, this sounds like your Google obsession leading you away from an appreciation of how it is a lot of people actually search. Google had two major advantages when it debuted, and it’s the combination of them (I think) that led to to its triumph.

First, its search results seemed noticeably more consistently reliable than the alternatives, for me and for a lot of other folks. It doesn’t have to be a huge margin, and it often wasn’t. But if what I wanted would reliably show up in the first screenful or at least the first page, rather than a few pages into results, then that’s an accumulating bundle of time and attention that we get to use on other things.

Second, it had a vastly cleaner, simpler, and therefore faster page format. It took less time to get results even when they were just the same as what anyone else would deliver. See above about the cumulative weight of this.

Back before browsers came with Google searches as a standard thing, people did in fact switch to searching via Google in significant numbers. That’s why it became a new default in many browsers.


Bruce Baugh 02.25.08 at 8:32 pm

One of the things I notice as a regular topic in my LiveJournal and e-mail archive from the years before Google’s debut is a general lament among my friends, who tend to be heavy net users, about how other search sites were falling prey to the portal-temptation demon and cluttering up everything. It didn’t bother all of my gang equally, but it was a very common source of disappointment and annoyance. I have the impression, reflecting on responses to Google in the newsgroups and mailing lists I frequent, that we were really not alone in it, and the focus of the site and its design helped show off every little algorithmic advantage to best effect.


Chris Cagle 02.25.08 at 8:36 pm

I would agree with Bruce, adding that the softer sell of the advertisement was a breath of fresh air and a noticeable change of direction from the portal mentality of the mid-90s. This had an aesthetic impact, an impact in downloading time, and an impact in user experience.


Eszter 02.25.08 at 8:46 pm

leading you away from an appreciation of how it is a lot of people actually search

I base my comments on data gathered from observations and interviews with numerous searchers, research participants we reached through rigorous sampling techniques. I have more appreciation for how it is that people actually search than most and I have data to back that up.

Regarding a look back at why people turned to Google, that’s fine, but I don’t see how that would necessarily generalize to today and how that addresses the points raised in the original post. The Web of 2008 is very different from the Web of 2001-02 when users started migrating over to Google. So whatever may have been the reason to migrate over then doesn’t necessarily say much about why it is that they are staying there now or what it is that may or may not inspire them to move to another service today.


Bruce Baugh 02.25.08 at 8:50 pm

Well, I know that when I was doing some searching last week, and tried out various search engines because I was having DNS troubles, Google remained significantly more likely to put what I wanted on the first screen, or at least the first page, and was least cluttered. They’ve done by far the best job of the search sites I know at adding links and subsections and whatnot without making it feel more cluttered to me.

So, basically, yeah, the same considerations still apply. It gets me where I want to go, somewhat more reliably, noticeably more quickly.

How representative my experience is now, I couldn’t even begin to hazard a guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer is “still pretty much, yeah”.


Mikhail 02.25.08 at 8:56 pm

I totally agree both with the post and with #1. Way back when Google was just breaking through, I used other search engines a lot and actually resisted switching (here comes the lock-in factor…! :) ). But over time I saw that Google’s results are cleaner, faster and more relevant, plus it started to have a wider base of searchable pages, so I switched. These days it’s mostly the convenience of having a Firefox field for it. But I do use other sources for things that I know Google is bad or not up to scratch on – for example, searching the Russian language part of the web – this I use Russian crawlers for…


Naadir Jeewa 02.25.08 at 9:00 pm

I think you’re right on comparing searches to users. I’m an early adopter of Google (1998). My user stats show a mean average of 34 searches per day. I don’t think this is representative of other users, but others who are power searching, are Googling.


Righteous Bubba 02.25.08 at 9:06 pm

My mom’s going to stick with whatever’s in front of her face. Me, I do some search-engine research every once in a while which has resulted in changes in my habits.

Mom is as happy in her use of computers as I am in mine.


abb1 02.25.08 at 9:13 pm

Google is good enough and everybody is using it.
Why google? – Why not?


not even an MBA 02.25.08 at 9:24 pm

I hate to validate the advertising mentality, but maybe it is about The Power of The Brand(tm). Especially your point about proportion of searchers, (i.e. what of the casual search engine user?). For someone doing only a small number of searches, what other search engines would they even be aware of?


jim 02.25.08 at 9:31 pm

One doesn’t switch from one tool to another if its only claim is it’s just as good as the one you’re now using.

In 2001, Google was clearly better than other search engines. People switched. Now, other search engines are just as good as Google. People don’t switch. D’oh.


Righteous Bubba 02.25.08 at 9:33 pm

For someone doing only a small number of searches, what other search engines would they even be aware of?

There aren’t any other search-engine verbs that I’m aware of.


luci 02.25.08 at 10:07 pm

What jim said. I’d only switch if I became aware of something that was vastly superior to Google.


jcamfield 02.25.08 at 10:08 pm

I think the above anti-portal/anti-clutter arguments are solid as reasons why people jumped to google. Since that big jump, there’s been no other up-and-coming search engine that’s been able to uproot google’s dominance (though Ask is trying hard).

What I think Google’s long-term value-add is, however, is what I’ll call lock-in 2.0 — having a google account gives you vast access to email (which you can smtp/pop or even imap in to your personal desktop mail client); google docs (which you can import/export/rss-feed/share); google calendar (which you can expot as an ical file, feed, etc.), reader (also sharable..)
Google has mastered a central web 2.0 concept — encouraging sharing of your data that eventually pulls you back, over and over again, to the central site — while still giving you this sense of control. It’s brilliant, and it’s the thing that Yahoo and Microsoft haven’t figured out yet.


jcamfield 02.25.08 at 10:09 pm

re: 12

Yeah, “Go yahoo it” just doesn’t have the right … connotation … to get me thinking about searching.


marcel 02.25.08 at 10:12 pm

Eszter: Do you have data on historical mkt share of different search engines? Just thinking over my own history, Web Crawler in the early-mid 90s, slowly switching over 1st to Lycos, then Alta Vista. Sometime in the later 90s (I think, don’t recall exactly) I started hearing about google, and came to realize that Alta Vista was dying on the vine while google was clearly better. I may have missed an engine or two in there, but right now I think not.


Jacob Rus 02.25.08 at 10:22 pm

Google won out because Google respects its users needs more than their ad revenue. Or, more accurately, realizes that more of the former leads to more of the latter.


dan k 02.25.08 at 11:53 pm

What Mikhail and Jim said. Even now, coming from a developing country Google’s page loads considerably quicker and displays results faster than MSN or Yahoo. Yahoo may finally be catching up to google in quality, but MSN’s search is still dismal (and this makes it FEEL even worse than Altavista when I initially made the switch to Google).

Obviously, Varian is being a bit of a Google shill and a bad economist by discounting those other causes…


JP Stormcrow 02.26.08 at 12:10 am

Real power searchers don’t use just one search tool. For some tips and techniques check out ex-hacker Fravia’s Searchlores site.


Shane 02.26.08 at 12:11 am

More on lock-in: I am a power user of Google’s toolbar. Google’s toolbar is a powerful enough and compelling enough lock-in tool to keep me from switching from Firefox to Opera, a faster and more stable browser (in my experience on my machine).

Not to mention how seamlessly integrated my Google account is to my blogging, online bookmarks, email, and other Google services whose competition is far more than “just a click away,” I think an argument could be made that search is easy to switch from, but the suite of Google’s services is very difficult to switch away from.


Steven Poole 02.26.08 at 12:17 am

First, there is the lock-in that comes from having Google as the default search engine in some browsers (e.g., Firefox).

No, I do think we should save the term “lock-in” for cases where users are actually locked in by proprietary file formats, which isn’t the case with any google product as far as I am aware. (For real examples see Microsoft, or DRM-d music from iTMS.)

I switched from Altavista to google in 1999, as the latter was clearly better. Haven’t switched to anything else since through sheer laziness/inertia/access to other databases if I need them, etc.

One issue I do have with google is whether they have a conflict of interest in regard to their apparent inability to eliminate splogs from their results. After all, the splogs are making google money through their use of google ads. Has anyone investigated this properly?


Thomas Brownback 02.26.08 at 12:19 am

I sympathize a lot with Eszter, and these comments. At the heart of my question was the understanding that in (roughly) 2000, I picked a search engine based on algorithm, because we hadn’t figured that part of search out yet. Now, everyone gets a passing grade on algorithm, so I move to other criteria for search: how effectively can I select the right result based on the snippet provided, how easy/dynamic/forgiving are the advanced search options, how muddy is the page, … Google has traditionally won on the nonintrusive advertising. Google maintained a mostly blank page with a simple search box while others moved towards category based searching. The category searching failed, and the simple search became basically a trademark for Google. But most of it is probably inertia, I still have that residual excitement I felt when I first used Google ages ago, when it was so much better than anything else (I probably had the same excitement for Lycos and WebCrawler and Yahoo in their turns). I don’t know what it would take to blow my mind in search again (though Yahoo and Google both pioneer neat things in other areas, like Pipes and SketchUp, neither has a telepathic search engine… yet). To win the old way in search, the way Google originally did, you have to find a way to give me awe, to essentially remind me we’re just at the tip of the iceberg for this whole Internet thing, let me dream all day of the possibilities. Google, at its birth, did nothing less.

I asked Varian because I thought this was worthy of deep discussion. I’m pretty floored that so many others agree.


Steven Poole 02.26.08 at 12:20 am

Shane and others: isn’t there a difference between “not wanting to switch away from google’s suite of products because they’re so cool and integrated”, and “not being able to switch away from google’s suite of products because I can’t export my data in a format that competing products can read”?

I think only the second warrants being called “lock-in”.


terence 02.26.08 at 12:28 am


The word Google lends itself to being a verb. “I’ll Google it now” works rather better than “I’ll Altavista it now” or “Have you Yahoo!ed it yet?”

[/tongue moderately far into cheek]


Naadir Jeewa 02.26.08 at 12:44 am

Re: 19.

Would be fair enough to use different search engines until you realise you want to search academic journals. The ability to switch from web search to academic search, and integration with library openurl handlers. The universities co-opted into this, so this is another example of lock-in.


Righteous Bubba 02.26.08 at 12:47 am

check out ex-hacker Fravia’s Searchlores site.

And I do and…

You are not using the Opera browser… this is unfortunate:
you won’t be able to access (a small) part of the information on this site.

It strikes me that this guy doesn’t grasp the fundamentals.


Tom T. 02.26.08 at 1:08 am

Re: #12 and verb appeal. One could Ask the internet to find something.


emeris 02.26.08 at 2:34 am

I’ll add to the torrent of people commenting on the front page. The yahoo page is rather cluttered and it took me a while to find the search bar, the google page is the logo the search bar (plus 3 search links) and 12 text links. Their focus groups may tell yahoo that is what people want, but i find it jarring.


JP Stormcrow 02.26.08 at 3:03 am

26: Oh yes, he is a loon, but interesting (and if you are willing to wade through it, he has some good advice). Plus I love quotes like this:

Time and again, seekers realize that many fellow humans don’t even know how to use the exclusion operator on google – this usually leaves us feeling hollow, sick, and ashamed that we inhabit the same planet (let alone that we belong to the same species) as such scum :-) Time to throw some knowledgeballs down the webhills!


vivian 02.26.08 at 3:08 am

It’s not “lock-in,” it’s”Satisficing” – for a very high level of satisfaction, from hard-to-please old-timers. For specialized searches, I use specialized engines – without feeling disloyal. Find me a better one and I’ll switch.
There is, however, no reason for me to switch back to Yahoo (after what, thirteen years?), when it lost me precisely becausre it gave priority to something over solving my problem quickly. Altavista beat the crap out of them then by meeting my needs better, without obscuring my results too much, until AV changed too. Then Google came along and made a point of not trying to distract the users from our goals, while still making enormous amounts of money. Win-win plus stability. They did nothing to drive me away, and continue to provide what I like about their service. Gmail doesn’t thrill me, and iGoogle is not what I want, but those are (1) optional, and (2) haven’t distracted them from their search business. It’s neither magic nor sinister.


eszter 02.26.08 at 3:12 am

Good point about the various Google services, although I actually find that to be a motivator to move onto another search engine on occasion when I don’t want everything aggregated and profiled together.

Thomas B, thanks for visiting and for asking the original question. I agree with you that a wow factor is what would get me to switch. There was some talk of Yahoo! integrating del.icio.us information into its results and that was the first time in a long time that I got excited about some new prospects. Alas, I haven’t seen it go public.


slag 02.26.08 at 4:41 am

Usability is the key. Look and feel. Clean interface and clean results are the biggest motivators for using Google as far as I can tell. Plus, the Google toolbar is handy and vertical searches are nice.


Katherine 02.26.08 at 9:48 am

There is a good dollop of brand loyalty to be considered I think. Gmail is my lifeline at the moment, and Google Calendar organises my life. That big, friendly, helpful Google logo does warm, fuzzy things to me.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who uses Gmail and Google Calendar and whatnot who just automatically turns to Google to search because there is no reason not to. Most people don’t have the time and motivation to research alternative search engines if Google is giving them what they need and there is no significant benefit to going elsewhere.


H. 02.26.08 at 11:29 am

The fact is that just about every main area of Internet use ends up as a monopoly or duopoly. Search engines: Google. Video: youtube. Personal networks: myspace and facebook. Booksellers: Amazon, etc. etc. The criteria seems to be either first to market, or first to break out with a significantly superior service. The latter is the case with Google. Once you get the universal brand recognition, then the fact that other companies play catch up and your service is no longer significantly superior is irrelevant. Only when the next quantum leap comes are you in any danger.


not even an MBA 02.26.08 at 1:43 pm

I imagine the casual searcher to be reading his or her favourite blogs, and when they read something that catches their attention, like say “Medium Lobster”, they open a search window and copy-paste it in. Occasional searchers may not even know they have a search toolbar.

For that type of user, how are you going to improve on a 20kB front page?


joejoejoe 02.26.08 at 5:13 pm

I have Google set as my homepage. My home PC has multiple users and I find Google to be the most neutral (both visually and functionally) starting place for everybody. I think that might be a huge factor in why Google doesn’t lose it’s marketshare.

OT: I’d guess in 5 years or so someobody develops a self-sustaining open source competitor to Google that plows online ad revenue back into non-profit search development & hosting costs and then Google will find themselves in the same place as Yahoo — trying to get juice from an already squeezed orange.


Matthew Kuzma 02.26.08 at 5:33 pm

I really think you can’t overlook page design and layout. The base google.com page is a stark contrast to the base yahoo.com page. I, for one, am decidedly turned-off by a big cluttered page junk greeting me before every search.


Tom 02.26.08 at 6:28 pm

Interesting article, I particularly like your point about sercher vs searches. But surely Microsoft has more of a “lock-in” advantage, they have the most popular browser by a large margin and they’ve hardwired their search engine into its search box and its address bar. Might this not go some way towards explaining why Google doesn’t have a larger market share?


a very public sociologist 02.26.08 at 7:35 pm

My experience with Google mirrors Bruce @ *1. I found Yahoo, Webcrawler, Netscape, and Excite pretty frustrating as search engines. I heard about Google through internet word of mouth and just found it a lot better. Now I stick with it out of habit – if there’s a better (more ethical?) alternative I would be open to giving it a go.


Tracy W 02.26.08 at 8:54 pm

I think what is happening is that Eszter and Varian are using different definitions of lock-in.

Varian is probably using the word “lock-in” in the sense of “Fix firmly in position, commit to something”. I’m not sure what sense Eszter is using it, but it appears to be something along the lines of “some web searchers are non-technical and get very comfortable with using Google”. If Eszter put this definition to Varian, Varian might very well agree that lock-in is possible for that definition of the word “lock-in”.


idlemind 02.26.08 at 9:44 pm

Consider that at one point Google powered Yahoo!’s search but was still growing market share at a good clip. The clean page was the real differentiator (though Yahoo!’s search page –as opposed to its portal page — was nearly as clean but practically unknown). Yahoo!’s acquisition and use of Inktomi brought a noticeable decline in search quality. That’s been improved, slowly, to the point that it’s often as good as Google’s (in a few cases, better — I’ve found Yahoo!’s search better for nailing mis-remembered quotations).

Let’s not forget that search, in and of itself, is a money-loser. Google makes its money from advertising, and that while owning the search sector gives it powerful ways to bring advertisers and potential customers together, they’ll increasingly have to leverage things other than search to increase income from advertising — or find other ways of making money.


Thomas Brownback 02.26.08 at 11:33 pm

In hindsight, these trends might be explained by Sherwin Rosen’s point that a small difference in quality can occasionally explain vastly different rewards.


eszter 02.27.08 at 3:57 am

Might this not go some way towards explaining why Google doesn’t have a larger market share?

Tom, definitely. Basic portal set-ups have a lot to do with what search engines people use. I’ve written about that for a long time.

I think what is happening is that Eszter and Varian are using different definitions of lock-in.

Yes, Tracy, absolutely. I am not thinking of it in the traditional technical sense and I should’ve definitely been more clear about that. I tried to clarify in one of the updates I added to the post.

By the way, regarding the clean look, while the start page may be clean, many people don’t even use that anymore as their access to Google (nor did they when they started using it as many started using it through other sites like Yahoo! as noted above). And when it comes to the results pages, the differences are not that huge anymore depending on the query, compare these two for the same search terms:
Google, Yahoo


Michael E Sullivan 02.27.08 at 4:10 am

it’s frankly very difficult to judge search quality where the differences are small. I began using google regularly around 1998-9 when the differences were pretty large. But, honestly, that’s not the main reason I started using google.

The biggest difference between google and every other search site then, was how long it took pages to load. I didn’t actually switch so much as start using search regularly when I discovered google. At the time, I did not have a broadband connection and using other engines with slow page loads was *excruciating*. Before google, I avoided net searches. After google, it became the first thing I did when looking for information.

And that difference is still significant today. I just did a couple searches on yahoo (which is also an easily selectable option in my firefox search field without ever specifically installing it) and the same searches on google. The google page had much more data, and loaded in about 1/10 the time. the delay with the yahoo page was noticeable on my broadband connection. Textual data should not be noticeably delayed on a broadband connection. That’s just sad that in 2008, you can’t put a text page together that loads in less than 1 second.

This alone, even if the search results were marginally *inferior*, would keep me using google.
Google gets it. I’m using the internet to *save* time, not *waste* it.


Great Zamfir 02.27.08 at 8:58 am

How much is not simply excellent marketing? I went to Yahoo for the first time in ages, and while not as bad as it used to be, it is still completely filled by shopaholica and celebrities. I found that I was not just expecting, but positively hoping that Google would have better search results.

In the mean time, Google has a very clear friendly-face-with-the smartest-maths image. And they work hard to keep it. German car makers are notorious for tuning the sound of closings doors, to make them sound sturdy. Google is usually the snappiest, fastest loading site around. A few years ago they had a campaign for new employees with mathematical puzzles. Even if this had no effect on the quality of their new people, it definitely added to their slightly-funny-but-effective-geniuses image.

It might well be that the main importance of their gmail, and calendars and spreadsheets and other new stuff is to show that they are still smart and creative and whatever. It works for me that way: by spending time on other things, it feels to me that they must also be spending lots of time on improving their search engine.


agm 02.27.08 at 9:35 am

Well, there’s always this advice to add a data point about people’s attitudes.


Brautigan 02.27.08 at 7:16 pm

For me, it’s very simple. Google’s simple, clean interface means I don’t have to wade thru tons of crap.

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