The New York Times yesterday ran an item in their “Bits” blog titled “The Gap Between Google and Rivals May Be Smaller Than You Think“. The author, Miguel Helft, missed the boat by a mile. Twice.

First he asserted “With a combined 28 percent of the American search market, Yahoo and Microsoft could double their usage and still trail Google, which accounts for 65 percent of the market.”. Now, I’d like to find out what schools he attended and make sure they were stripped of their accreditation. I’m not talking about any college he went to, I’m talking about his grade school here. The market to which he refers is made up of a number of players, some big and some small, but the total market share of all the players will always be 100%. Period. Can’t be changed. Assuming that the market share of all the small players remains at 7%, which seems likely, if the Microsoft/Google alliance ran their share up to 56% they would be the dominant power because Google could only possibly have 37% share. Anyone who can’t add two-digit numbers up to 100, or doesn’t know that 100 is as far as percentages can go, should not be allowed out of grade school. And on the off chance that the Times still has editors, whoever passed this column for publication needs to head back to fifth grade as well, at least for arithmetic.

Helft then heads off into areas that are less-obviously absurd. He reports that Microsoft/Yahoo actually has pretty good market penetration, that 73% of all searchers use their service at least occasionally. (Google’s penetration is 84%.) But clearly what’s important is the number of searches, as every search presents the opportunity to display ads. Helft quotes Eli Goodman of comScore asserting “The challenge will be to create a search experience compelling enough to convert lighter searchers into regular searchers which is generally easier than converting new users,” which Helft obviously agrees with. That is patently absurd, although admittedly not arithmetically absurd. This is much like saying that all Miller needs to do to grow is turn the women who occasionally drink one of that company’s insipid products into heavy beer drinkers. The people who occasionally perform a search are the ones that aren’t particularly serious about their internet experience. They have one browser window open, and their home page is whatever somebody setup for them when they got their computer, and that’s where they run their occasional searches. (This was the crowd that made AOL huge.) Serious users have multiple tabs open in their browsers and probably rarely even see their home pages, or set them to Google so they wouldn’t have to wait for MSN to load. These are the users who flocked to WebCrawler in 1994, were using DEC’s AltaVista by the summer of ’95, tried Dogpile in ’96 (and weren’t impressed), and flocked to Google in ’98.

Although occasional searchers can be expected to gradually get more comfortable with searching, and therefore do more of it, they aren’t likely to become serious searchers. It’s a different mindset. While I appreciate the 1700 hits to my Julia Child quotes page that Bing sent in a nine-hour period last week, I’m more impressed by Google’s steady traffic. But the only way for Bing, or any other search engine, to achieve large volumes of searches is for them to become a good tool for the serious searcher. It’s possible, Bing returns pretty good results. It’s far more likely than Miller ever coming up with products that would compete with Rogue or Bridgeport for my beer money!