It's March Madness for Chrome and Internet Explorer

Trouble looms ahead this month for Chrome, while Internet Explorer is poised for a growth surge. Behind this March Madness both browsers share something in common -- their ties to either Google or Microsoft products or services. Chrome will be penalized for one, while IE is set to gain from the other.

Chrome is one of the decade's stunning success stories, in part because of Google's rapid innovation that puts out a new version about every six weeks. But Google also benefits from ties to its other products and services, with search being high among them. Recent browser usage share growth reversals reveal just how much -- in January and February stats compiled by Net Applications.

NetApps plans to close a technical loophole that helped Chrome game the system, so to speak, although Google's intention surely was more about keeping/getting users than raising usage stats. Concurrent with Chrome 13's release, Google started prerendering hidden pages from its search portal to speed up queries. With Chrome 17, Google extended the capability to the browser's "omnibox".

"Chrome is the only major desktop browser that currently has this feature, which creates unviewed visits that should not be counted in Chrome’s usage share," according to NetApps. "However, the pages that are eventually viewed by the user should be treated normally".

In February prerendering "accounted for 4.3 percent of Chrome's daily unique visitors. These visits will now be excluded from Chrome's desktop browser share".

That could work out to a significant nip, in March, to Chrome usage share growth, which already hit a wall in January. Through December 2011, Chrome usage share grew for 14 consecutive months. On January 3, Google announced a temporary downgrading of Chrome's page rank -- how high it appears in searches -- following a minor scandal with a third-party ad agency. The marketer paid bloggers to write about Chrome, which violates Google policies on sponsored links. The search and information giant treated itself like other advertisers, lowering Chrome's search ranking for 60 days.

The result: Chrome usage share declined in January, and again last month. NetApps released February data today. From December to January, Google usage share fell from 19.11 percent to 18.94 percent -- and to 18 percent last month. Google is scheduled to lift Chrome's page rank over the weekend. The questions: How much lower would the browser's usage share be without the prerendering benefit? How will its absence affect March, even as Google pushes up Chrome's search ranking? There may be answer when this month's stats are released on April Fools Day.

Internet Explorer's situation is just the opposite. Chrome's January usage drain was IE's gain. Usage share rose 1.1 points month on month to 52.96 percent share, but dipped to 52.84 percent in February.

Yesterday, Microsoft released Windows 8 Consumer Preview, which already passed 1 million downloads today. The operating system comes with Internet Explorer 10 Platform Preview 5. Integration into Windows benefits IE.

The question: Will enough people download Windows 8 and use IE10 to boost browser usage share? Surely there has to be some benefit, say, if someone mostly or mainly using Chrome switches to IE10, even temporarily, to test the browser. Usage share isn't finite like market share. The latter typically tracks X over Y time period. The other measure takes into account that people can, and do, use multiple browsers -- and that's more likely when testing a new version of Windows.

So as Chrome looks down, IE conceptually looks up -- and movement for either browser can affect others. In February, Firefox usage share was 20.92 percent, up from 20.88 percent. Safari also gained, rising to 5.24 percent from 4.9 percent a month earlier. Chrome losses could be their gains.

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