Top web browsers 2018: Microsoft scratches out gains as analytics vendor expels bots

Analytics vendor Net Applications tweaked its data to cull bot traffic, allowing Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Edge to show a small rise in user share.

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Microsoft's browsers have scratched out user share gains in three of the last five months, halting what late last year looked like a death spiral.

Less than half of the half-a-percentage point increase since November has come from Edge, the Windows 10 browser Microsoft has bet on for the foreseeable future.

According to data published Tuesday by California-based analytics vendor Net Applications, Microsoft's Edge and Internet Explorer (IE) combined to account for 16.8% of the browser market during April. The one-tenth of a point increase over March was near the browsers' five-month average.

The rosier outlook for Microsoft's browsers stood in contrast to earlier forecasts based on Net Applications' numbers. The reason for the change: The metrics company again went back into its data, this time for February, and revised its numbers after expelling bot traffic.

As it did in November, Net Applications purged the bot traffic because it skews results. These software-based tools are usually deployed by criminals and hucksters, who program the bots' automated scripts to mimic human online behavior, often for ad click fraud purposes.

"Bots can cause significant skewing of data," Net Applications explained last year. "We have seen situations where traffic from certain large countries is almost completely bot traffic. In other countries, ad fraudsters generate traffic that spoofs certain technologies in order to generate high-value clicks. Or, they heavily favor a particular browser or platform."

The revised data put Microsoft's browsers in a slightly better light, with increases to both Edge and IE since November's retuning. There's little indication that either browser actually grew its user share - as opposed to the bot scouring causing the gains - because both Edge and IE added to their share. As a second-class browser since Microsoft relegated it to legacy support duties, IE is unlikely to climb in user share.

Of Microsoft's two browsers, Edge was responsible for just under half - 48% - of the November-to-April increase; IE accounted for the remaining 52%.

Mozilla's Firefox did not benefit from Net Applications' latest bot cleansing, as it again shed share in April, losing four-tenths of a percentage point to end at 10.2%. That was after March's decline of six-tenths of a point to 10.5%.

As Computerworld has pointed out several times since Mozilla launched a revamped Firefox labeled "Quantum," the redesign and associated attention has failed to stop the browser's long bleeding of user share. In the five months since Quantum's debut, Firefox has lost 1.3 percentage points, which represented 11% of its end-of-November share.

If the trend over the past five months continues, Firefox will slip under the 10% user share bar this month, and fall below 9% by September.

Meanwhile, the user share of Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari fell and climbed, respectively, last month. Chrome lost almost a tenth of a percentage point, slipping to 61.7%, while Safari scratched out another half of one-tenth of a point to make an even 4%.

However, Safari continued to lose ground where it counts, on Apple's Mac systems. Like Microsoft, Apple has been laid low by "Chrome Disease," as more of its Mac owners have deserted the company's own browser (Safari) for an alternative (almost certainly Chrome for the most part). Although Safari was the browser of choice for as much as two-thirds of those running OS X (the former name for macOS), Safari slipped into the minority on Apple machines in December. Last month, Safari was the primary browser on just 43% of all Macs.

Net Applications calculates user share by detecting the agent strings of the browsers people use to visit its clients' websites. It then tallies the visitor sessions - which are effectively visits to the site, with multiple sessions possible daily - rather than count only users, as it once did. Net Applications thus tracks both users as well as their activity, where rivals analytics sources focus solely on the later.

The company also accounts for the size of each country's online population to better estimate share in regions where it lacks analytics customers, such as China and India.

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