The browser battle returned to a kind of normalcy last month as Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), which had posted its largest-ever share increase in January, declined slightly in February.
And Google's Chrome fell for the second straight month in Web metrics firm Net Application's statistics as the company acknowledged it has been over-counting that browser's share for months.
Chrome's pre-rendering feature -- where the browser loads pages in the background that the user may view -- kicked off last August with version 13, and was enhanced in Chrome 17 that launched about a month ago.
As users type in search strings. whether at Google.com or in the browser's combined address bar/search field, dubbed the "omnibox," Google loads one or more hidden pages that it thinks the user will select from the ensuing search links.
Net Applications admitted that it had given Chrome a larger share than the browser deserved. "[Pre-rendering] creates unviewed visits that should not be counted in Chrome's usage share," said Net Applications on its website yesterday.
Starting with the data from February, Net Applications has adjusted Chrome's share -- which is derived from the page views attributed to the browser -- by tossing aside unused pre-loaded pages and counting only those the user actually sees.
"Pre-rendering in February 2012 accounted for 4.3% of Chrome's daily unique visitors," said Net Applications.
Chrome is the only major browser that offers pre-rendering.
Under the new methodology, Chrome's share fell about one half of a percentage point to end February with 18.9%, off its peak of 19.1% last December. The browser remained in the No. 3 slot, behind both IE and Mozilla's Firefox.
Last month, Net Applications linked Chrome's decline to Google's January decision to demote the PageRank -- a rating Google assigns based on how many other sites link to a URL -- for Chrome's download site after it confirmed a marketing campaign had violated the company's own rules against paid links.
At the time, Google said it would punish its own browser with a 60-day PageRank demotion; the time-out ends in a few days, after which Google will presumably restore the download page's prominence in search results for "browser."
There was little movement by any of the top three browsers: Chrome has been stalled the last two months, as its flat line shows. (Data: Net Applications.)
Currently, Firefox is the top result of such searches, while Opera Software's Opera is third, Apple's Safari is fifth and IE is seventh.
IE lost just over one-tenth of a percentage point to account for 52.8% of all browsers used on desktop and notebook personal computers, while Firefox stayed flat at 20.9%.
Safari's share grew the most of any browser last month, adding three-tenths of a percentage point to reach 5.2%, an all-time high in Net Applications' tracking. Safari's spike wasn't a surprise: The share of Mac OS X, whose users also comprise the bulk of Safari's users, climbed by a record amount last month, too.
Among the multiple editions of IE, the 11-year-old IE6 lost the most share, falling by more than a percentage point to 6.9%, while the newer IE7 fell to 4.7%.
Meanwhile, IE8 and IE9 gained four-tenths of a point and almost a full point, respectively. IE9 saw its share climb to 12.6% worldwide.
IE9 on Windows 7, which Microsoft again said was its "core metric" , now accounts for 30.1% of the world's browsers used on that operating system, and owns a 40.5% share of the Windows 7 browser market in the U.S.
On Wednesday, Microsoft issued the fifth so-called "Platform Preview" of IE10, the next browser in its line, as part of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview . The preview -- essentially an alpha edition -- also runs on Windows 7 , but will not work on either Windows XP or Vista.
Net Applications has not yet begun tracking IE10 share.
Rival Irish measurement company StatCounter painted a gloomier picture of IE's position, saying that Microsoft's browser had dropped 1.7 points to 35.8%, while Chrome was in the No. 2 spot with 29.8% -- an increase of 1.4 points -- and Firefox held steady at third with 24.9%.
Net Applications calculates browser usage share with data obtained from more than 160 million unique visitors who browse 40,000 Web sites that the company monitors. More browser statistics can be found on the company's site.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com .
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