Jan. 4, 2012 at 12:14 PM ET
As 2011 ended, Internet Explorer preserved a precarious perch as first-place browser, yet Chrome was the only one that made such a big gain that becoming No. 1 some time in 2012 looks like a good bet. But its ascent won't come completely clean: Google is reported to have paid bloggers to campaign for the browser, and the search giant has subsequently knocked itself down in page rank — as a self-inflicted punishment.
StatCounter's global stats from December 2010 to December 2011 shows that of the top five browsers, Chrome is the only one that rose in usage, while IE and Firefox lost market share and Safari and Opera remained steady. Chrome began 2011 at 15.68 percent and ended it at 27.27 percent, while IE began 2011 at 46 percent and ended it at 38.65 percent.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
The Dublin, Ireland-based StatCounter was the same web analytics company that showed Chrome 15 overtaking IE 8 for the top browser spot for one week late in 2011.
In the U.S., StatCounter's stats show Chrome began 2011 with 12.67 percent of the market, but ended the year with 18.73 percent. IE began 2011 with 48.38 percent and ended it with 48.26, with only one spike to 50.66 percent in November before reverting back to its constant just below half. Firefox still stands between IE and Chrome in the U.S., but just barely. It ended the year with 20.15 percent, but it began 2011 with 26.38 percent.
NetMarketShare's stats also show IE still on top at 51.87 percent at year's end, but that's after it began 2011 at 58.35 percent. Chrome began 2011 at 11.15 percent and finished at 19.11 percent. Firefox and Opera went down, while Safari made modest gains that still kept it below 5 percent.
In an informal poll of about 6,200 votes in mid-December, msnbc.com readers revealed a preference for Chrome, with 41 percent telling us that's what they were using. Firefox came in second at 34 percent and IE third at 20 percent.
But even if Chrome does close the gap on IE and become the world's top browser this year, it does so at a cost of its own reputation.
Google begins 2012 under less-than-ideal circumstances, under a cloud of controversy, as sites such as Search Engine Land spread the word about an unauthorized pro-Chrome campaign that rewarded bloggers with payments.
Google has imposed a penalty on its own browser by demoting Chrome and lowering the site’s PageRank for at least 60 days — which means it won't show up so high, or even on the first page, of searches for "browser" — and explaining it in sort of simple language for the mainstream through Google+.
Nevertheless, this may prove to be only a temporary setback to the browser's inevitable march toward the top spot.