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Dear Google: Just how mammoth is your search share?

Surely, you know best

Just how big is Google's share of the all-important web search market?

According to the market-research types at comScore, the Mountain View Chocolate Factory controls about 66 per cent of all searches - at least in the US. Meanwhile, HitWise puts that figure closer to 72 per cent. But surely, there's one organization that's far more qualified to answer this question than the likes of comScore or Hitwise. Namely, Google itself - an organization that collects more data on the habits of the world's web users than perhaps any other, a place where "data drives everything."

As of a year ago, according a person familiar with Google's internal figures at that time, Mountain View's data showed that the company controlled no less than 86 per cent of the market. We asked Google if it could confirm this figure - and provide its latest internal market-share numbers - but it has yet to respond.

With the company facing so much scrutiny over its search business - from the press and independent pundits alike - an answer to this question isn't likely. Whoever's doing the asking. Even with a 66 to 72 per cent market share, Google owns a search-market monopoly, and many have at least questioned whether the company should face antitrust legislation, including not only outsiders like the now-famous Google critic Eric Clemons, a computer-science mind at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, but also Christine Varney, who now heads the US Justice Department's antitrust division.

"For me, Microsoft is so last century. They are not the problem,” Varney said in a speech months before President Barack Obama appointed her to the new post. "[Google] has acquired a monopoly in Internet online advertising."

And what if the company's search share is even higher?

If Google's share did top 86 per cent at the end of 2008, that would hardly be surprising. For years, webmasters have said that their server logs show a much higher Googleshare than numbers from outfits such as comScore and Hitwise.

In 2008, after Steve Ballmer and Microsoft bid $44.6bn to acquire Yahoo!, Google inked a search pact with Jerry Yang and company in an effort to fend off Redmond's attempted takeover. At the time, Microsoft complained that a Google-Yahoo! pact would consolidate over 90 per cent of the search market, and after the Department of Justice threatened a lawsuit over the deal, Google pulled out. How amusing it would be if that 90 per cent figure was too low.

Google is famous for saying: "What's good for the web is good for Google." But if its search share has already climbed above 85 per cent, this mantra takes on a whole new meaning. If the size of the web doubles, Google's search business nearly doubles as well.

With more search share comes an even tighter grip on the search advertising market, and Google's grip is very tight indeed. As the economy melted through the second half of 2008 and well into 2009, Google's search revenues continued to climb, while, say, Yahoo!'s revenues went into the tank. Advertisers flock to Google - particularly in hard times, it seems - because it has reach. Yahoo! is the world's second largest search. Hitwise says 15 per cent.

As Eric Clemons argues, Google search has come to control an essential online utility. "If you lose access to an essential utility, you are essentially dead," he said this fall during a talk at the tech-happy SuperNova mini-conference in San Francisco.

Google likes to argue that it can't run afoul of antitrust laws because it doesn't set prices, insisting that advertisers bid for the placement of paid links. But Google controls where the ads get placed, and to a large extent, it controls what advertisers must bid to receive prime placement.

Though Google says its search ad system is an auction, the company gives big brand owners placement over smaller folk. And for Clemons, this is an inherent contradiction. Google, he says, takes bids when no bids are needed.

"It can accumulate a cash hoard of tens of millions of dollars while charging companies to buy back their own names and then listing everything in exactly the order it would have been had no one bid at all."

Certainly, Google has more accurate data on its very own search market share than anyone else. After all, it runs Google search - and it has who knows how much data on third-party search engines via other services, including Google Analytics. But this is one piece of data Mountain View won't be sharing. ®

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