It has been more than two decades since some of the earliest web search engines were launched. Last year, the company behind the world’s biggest and most well-known search engine, Google, celebrated its 20th anniversary.
During that time, the act of searching the web has changed almost beyond recognition. While it’s still fundamentally about information retrieval, the types of information we can retrieve, the search queries we use, and even the devices we use to access that information have all changed. Search has evolved from being a predominantly text-based activity to being multimedia, interactive and personalised, and even capable of taking in the world around us.
It has gone from being a useful tool for indexing the web to being the engine that drives it – and, in many respects, to being what shapes people’s experiences of the internet. The company that owns the world’s most popular search engine is now one of the world’s largest and most powerful technology companies, with an immense advertising empire.
Meanwhile, in China – which is home to the world’s largest internet population – the inverse is taking place as web search engines fall steadily out of favour due to a vastly different internet landscape and differing search habits.
In this article, we’ll look at 18 statistics (plus a few extras) that illustrate all of these shifts and more: how search and SEO have changed in recent years, and how they are likely to change in the future.
1) The top five search engines in 2009 vs. 2019
In August 2009, Search Engine Watch, one of the first publications founded to track and comment on the search industry, published a list of the top 10 search providers in the United States by share of search queries, drawing on data from Nielsen MegaView Search.
Unsurprisingly, Google topped the list with a 64.6% share of searches and a 2.6% month-on-month growth. Perhaps more surprisingly, Yahoo came second, with a 16% share of searches. However, the search engine was also experiencing a 4.2% drop in monthly growth. Bing ranked third with 10.7% share of searches; the Microsoft-owned search engine was also experiencing the fastest growth out of any search engine in the list, with 22.1% month-on-month growth.
Rounding out the top five search engines were AOL, with a 3.1% share of searches, and Ask.com, with 1.7%.
Fast-forward to 2019, and statistics from StatCounter put Google’s share of the search market in the United States at 88.37%, followed by Bing at 6.07%. Yahoo is clinging on to a search share of 3.94%, while niche search engines DuckDuckGo and Ecosia have risen to occupy the fourth and fifth positions, with 1.28% and 0.13% market share, respectively.
While these are very small slices of the search market, it does still say something about the shift towards favouring a more ethical search (either private and secure, or environmentally friendly) that DuckDuckGo and Ecosia have managed to climb into this list – particularly as they were founded in 2008 and 2009, unlike Yahoo!, Google and Bing, which were launched in 1995, 1997 and 1998 respectively (Bing being then known as MSN Search).
2) DuckDuckGo has processed more than 11 billion private search queries in 2019
DuckDuckGo, arguably the most popular private search engine, makes traffic statistics for its search engine dating back to 2010 available on its website, providing an interesting insight into the rise of private search in the public consciousness.
In 2010, DuckDuckGo received nearly 16.5 million search queries; four years later, that figure had risen to more than 1.9 billion. DuckDuckGo’s search volume has grown exponentially since then, surpassing three billion in 2015, and coming close to six billion searches in 2017. At the time of writing, DuckDuckGo has had more than 11.7 billion searches in 2019 – close to double the figure from two years ago.
3) Google properties account for more than 90% of search
We’ve established that Google is currently the world’s most popular search engine, and that in the United States, it grew from having less than two-thirds of search volume to having 88.37% of the search market over the course of 10 years. However, data from Jumpshot, reported on by SparkToro, shows just how all-encompassing Google’s share of search is, thanks not only to its search engine but to other properties like Google Maps, Google Images, and YouTube.
According to Jumpshot’s anonymised clickstream data (which is drawn from users in the United States on both mobile and desktop), in February 2018 Google properties accounted for more than 90% of all search on the web, a figure that rose by around 1.5% between 2015 and 2018.
Over the same time period, author Rand Fishkin notes, Bing and Yahoo’s combined share of search fell from around 7% of all searches to just 4.6%.
Google algorithm updates
4) Google updated its algorithm more than 3,000 times in 2018
Since the early days of search engine optimisation (SEO), Google’s algorithm changes have been a focal point of SEO efforts and analysis as SEO practitioners strive to stay on the right side of them and avoid penalties. Algorithm updates like Florida, Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird and Fred have fundamentally changed website rankings and – in some cases – entire businesses over the years.
However, in the latter half of the 2010s, it’s fair to say that “algorithm discourse” has receded in SEO. This is due in large part to the fact that, rather than making isolated major updates to its algorithm of the kind that might be given names, Google has shifted to continually tweaking its algorithm over the course of a year.
Moz’s Marketing Scientist Dr. Peter J Meyers ran the numbers and reported more than 3,200 confirmed “improvements” to Google’s algorithm in 2018. This was close to double the 1,653 updates that Google reported just two years earlier, in 2016, and well over eight times the 350-400 changes reported in 2009.
No wonder SEOs stopped bothering to count.
5) Google now uses “neural matching” on 30% of queries
One significant change to the way that Google processes searches did come to light in 2018. At an event to commemorate Google’s 20th anniversary in September, Danny Sullivan revealed that over the past few months, Google had been using “neural matching” on 30% of queries in order to better connect words to concepts.
He gave the example of “soap opera effect”, which is a term used to describe a visual effect that is used to give television viewers a more lifelike image, but which can sometimes unsettle viewers. Using neural matching, Google is able to connect queries like “why does my tv look strange” to “soap opera effect” and display results for that phrase.
Last few months, Google has been using neural matching, –AI method to better connect words to concepts. Super synonyms, in a way, and impacting 30% of queries. Don't know what "soap opera effect" is to search for it? We can better figure it out. pic.twitter.com/Qrwp5hKFNz
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) September 24, 2018
Changing modes of search
6) The mobile tipping point
Since the advent of the smartphone, an increasing share of both browsing traffic and search queries has come from mobile devices as internet users shift more and more of their online activity to the tiny computers in their pockets (and as new users who come online connect using their mobile devices).
The percentage of internet activity coming from mobile devices can vary greatly between countries; some countries, like China, have internet populations who primarily use mobile devices to connect to the internet. However, a widely-cited tipping point for mobile search queries specifically is 2015, when Google reported that “more Google searches [now] take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the US and Japan”.
While Google doesn’t appear to have released subsequent figures about the percentage of searches coming from mobile, the following year, a study by Hitwise determined that mobile made up roughly 58% of search volume in the United States. In 2018, BrightEdge’s Mid-Year Mobile Research Round-Up reported that 62% of traffic originated from mobile and tablet search.
7) 76% of keywords generate a different search result on mobile versus desktop
In March 2018, Google switched from primarily indexing the desktop version of a website or page to primarily indexing the mobile version, beginning with websites that followed best practices for mobile-first indexing.
BrightEdge’s 2018 Mid-Year Mobile Research Round-Up studied the differences in search results for queries carried out on mobile versus desktop, and found that a full 76% of keywords already produced a different result on mobile.
When analysing the top 20 ranked search results for any given query, BrightEdge found that 47% differed between mobile and desktop. And 32% of the time, the first page that ranked for a domain on any given query differed between desktop and mobile.
8) Close to half of smart speaker owners use their devices for online search
Much has been made of the rapid consumer uptake of voice-first devices like smart speakers and the impending revolution in voice search that they’re predicted to bring about.
While we have yet to experience a sweeping shift in consumers using voice devices en masse for search (and probably won’t for some time yet), research has suggested that a little under half of smart speaker owners do use their devices to search online. A September 2018 survey by Adobe Analytics of common uses for smart speakers found that 47% of US consumers used their devices for online search, making it the fourth most popular activity behind playing music, checking the weather and asking “fun questions”.
Subsequent research carried out in January and May found that this percentage had declined slightly to 42%, before rising back up to 45%. Adobe’s May research also found that online search was the most common voice activity carried out on smartphones, with 50% of consumers surveyed using their smartphones for voice search.
9) Visual searches on Pinterest Lens increased 140% between 2017 and 2018
Search has expanded to the world around us with the advent of visual search, the term given to the use of an image or camera input to search the web. In February 2017, Pinterest launched Pinterest Lens, a visual search app that allows users to search the world around them with their smartphone camera and find visually similar items on Pinterest. Google was not far behind with the launch of its own similarly-named visual search tool, Google Lens, in October 2017.
On the one-year anniversary of Lens’ launch in February 2018, Pinterest revealed that Pinterest users were carrying out more than 600 million visual searches every month with Lens, a 140% increase year-over-year.
10) Mobile searches for “best” increased more than 80% in two years, while searches for “where to buy” grew by 85%
As searchers become used to obtaining more precise information from their search queries, the language that they use to search changes to reflect this. This is particularly true on mobile, which has seen increasingly specific search queries designed to find particular types of products as consumers search on the go.
At the end of 2017, Google revealed that it had seen an 80% growth in mobile searches containing the word “best” in the past two years. Mobile searches for “reviews” had grown by the same amount.
Data published by Google in October 2017 revealed more shopping-driven purchase trends: mobile searches for “where to buy” grew 85% between 2015 and 2017, while searches for “[blank] to avoid” rose by 150% over the same time period. Mobile searches for “is [blank] worth it” also grew by 80% from 2015 to 2017.
11) 15% of queries have never before been encountered by Google
As rapidly changing as culture, language and technology are, it’s inevitable that a certain proportion of search queries will be totally new concepts. Over the years, Google has revealed just what percentage of the trillions of search queries it processes are completely new.
In 2007, Google VP of Engineering Udi Manber gave a presentation in which he stated that between 20 and 25% of the queries that Google receives have never been encountered before. By 2013, that percentage had shrunk: John Wiley, lead designer for Google Search, stated that Google typically encountered 500 million new search queries every day, or 15% of the queries it processes.
This appears to have remained relatively static since, with advances in search capability possibly being balanced out by a growing internet population and an expanding volume of search queries. Google reaffirmed the 15% figure in 2017 with the announcement of Project Owl, and again in 2019 in a blog post about improvements to natural language search accuracy.
12) There is 350x more search interest in “local + near me” in the US compared with 10 years ago
In October 2019, Google released a report with new data on how people in the United States are searching for local businesses. In it, it revealed that there was 350 times more search interest in “local + near me” than 10 years ago.
This uptick in “near me” searches has been particularly pronounced on mobile, as again, people search for products and businesses on their smartphones while on the go. In May 2018, Google reported that there had been a 500% growth in “near me” mobile searches that contained a variant of “can I buy” or “to buy” between 2015 and 2017. Over the same time period, it had also seen a more than 150% increase in mobile searches for “[blank] near me now”, and a more than 900% rise in mobile searches for “[blank] near me today/tonight”.
13) Amazon has overtaken Google in product search since 2015
To say that Amazon is a force to be reckoned with in ecommerce is a drastic understatement in 2019, and it stands to reason to that this would also expand to search. While Google was once the preferred destination for shoppers to begin product searches, since 2015, the scales have tipped towards Amazon, according to a report by Jumpshot, ‘The Competitive State of eCommerce Marketplaces‘.
In 2015, 46% of product searches began on Amazon, while 54% began on Google. By 2018, the situations had reversed, with 54% of searchers beginning a product hunt on Amazon and 46% beginning one on Google.
However, searchers who begin their product hunt on Google purchase more quickly. Jumpshot found that 35% of Google product searches lead to a transaction within five days, versus less than 20% on Amazon.
14) Amazon has a higher overall share of US web searches than Bing
According to data by Jumpshot on where searches take place across the web, reported on by SparkToro’s Rand Fishkin, Amazon now has a higher overall percentage of web search than Bing – albeit only a fraction higher. In February 2018, Amazon had a 2.3% overall share of web search, while Bing had a 2.2% share.
Fishkin was quick to note that this is more due to Bing’s declining search share than Amazon’s growing share: Amazon’s overall share of web search has only risen by 0.1 percentage point since November 2015 (although in December 2017 it peaked at 3.2%) while Bing’s has declined by 1.3 percentage points over the same period.
For those who might be surprised that Amazon’s share of search isn’t higher, it might be dominant in product search – but it’s still not a general search engine. As Fishkin writes, “[Amazon’s growth] must be proportional in keeping up with the broad growth of search on the web as a whole. Perhaps that’s impressive by itself.”
Search in China
15) China’s top search engines: 2009 vs. 2019
In the last ten years, China’s search engine landscape has experienced even more dramatic shifts and changes than the search landscape in the west. In January 2009, a year before it would officially pull out of China in protest over censored search results, Google enjoyed a 97.65% share of search, according to StatCounter. This quickly plummeted, and by May 2009 had already sunk to 28%, possibly due to censorship imposed by the Chinese government. Native search engine Baidu rose in its absence, going from a 42% share of search in March 2009 to a 71% share in August.
For the next three years the two search engines’ ups and downs mirrored each other, until Google began a final decline in mid-2012, plummeting from a 40% share of search in June 2012 to just 7% market share in October 2013. From June 2014 to October 2019, Google’s share of search in China has hovered around 2%.
The market share of search engines in China, 2009 – 2019. Source: StatCounter Global Stats
Baidu has proven difficult to unseat from its throne, with rivals Haosou, Shenma and Sougou all making inroads at different times, but failing to hold onto their gains. Between January 2015 and October 2018 Baidu’s share of search has remained relatively consistent between 65% and 87%, with one dip below 60% in February 2018. As of October 2019 it has declined slightly to 62%, with Sogou holding the second-largest share at 23%.
Following the launch of Bytedance’s Toutiao Search in August, we may see another search engine eating into Baidu’s share, but it remains to be seen how much it will impact the overall search landscape in China.
16) Baidu’s share price has slid 43% in the past year
Despite being the undisputed king of search in China, Baidu isn’t without its troubles. Baidu’s share price has been declining for some time, experiencing a particularly sharp drop in May 2019 from US $153.70 per share on 15th May to US $117.55 per share on the 20th. Today it stands at US $103.87, a 43% decrease from the end of October 2018, and the financial and technological publications are full of news of Baidu’s decline. In August, the South China Morning Post reported that Baidu had fallen out of the top five most valuable publicly traded Chinese internet companies.
Its rivals aren’t faring much better. Shares in Sogou, which is currently the second-largest presence in Chinese search, declined 55% between May 2018 and May 2019, as reported by Simply Wall St. These flagging fortunes are because Chinese web search engines are unable to crawl China’s increasingly gated web content, which is confined to walled garden apps like WeChat. Instead, they are forced to use a wide range of apps’ internal search engines to find content.
Add to this complaints about disproportionate amounts of ads on Baidu and the promotion of low-quality news articles, and Baidu will need to work to regain the trust of Chinese internet users.
17) More than half of Google searches no longer result in a click
Ranking high on the search engine results page is all well and good, but for the vast majority of businesses, the entire point is for searchers to click through to their website. Unfortunately, new data from Jumpshot has revealed that more than half of searches on Google no longer lead to a click on any results, organic or otherwise.
Specifically, in June 2019, 50.33% of Google searches produced no clicks. 45.25% resulted in organic clicks, and 4.42% resulted in clicks on ads.
The percentage of Google searches that do result in a click has declined 15 percentage points in just two years: in 2017, Rand Fishkin reported that 60% of Google search queries resulted in one or more clicks (or 66% of distinct search queries). The percentage of clicks on ads has also risen: only 2.6% of ads resulted in a click in 2017, which suggests that Google has made some changes that entice searchers to click on paid results.
18) Experts believe that Google competing directly with publishers will have the biggest impact on SEO in the next three years
In August 2019, SparkToro’s Rand Fishkin surveyed more than 1,500 SEO professionals on which ranking factors they believe are weighted most heavily in Google search. The results were an interesting study in to what extent SEOs agree on Google ranking factors and their relative importance.
Fishkin also surveyed SEOs on which trends they believe will have the greatest impact on SEO in the coming three years on a scale of 0 to 4, where 0 is “no impact” and 4 is “huge impact”. Top of the list was “Google entering verticals/competing directly vs. publishers”, which SEO experts gave an overall weighing of 3.36.
Second on the list was “Advancements in machine learning/artificial intelligence”, with an importance weighting of 3.24, followed by “Zero-click searches on Google”, which received a 3.1 rating in terms of its impact to SEO.