Ask Jumps, Google Slips and Yahoo Leads American Customer Satisfaction Index for Search
For the first time, Yahoo has beaten Google in the annual University of Michigan American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). The survey measures U.S. consumer satisfaction across a broad range of business and product categories including “e-business,” which covers search. The survey asks a statistically representative sample of consumers to rate their experiences with portals and search engines according to a number of criteria, which produces an overall satisfaction score on a 100 point scale. The search/portal category has been rated since 2000. Until this year, Google has always lead the ASCI since the first year the index included it, in 2002.
Among the top engines, Ask saw the largest gains in satisfaction (5.6%) while Yahoo emerged as the overall winner, beating Google by a single point. But Yahoo and Google were trending in opposite directions, with Yahoo gaining and Google losing a roughly equivalent percentage (see below). AOL saw the biggest decline in satisfaction (-9.5%) of any of the big portals/engines.
It’s not entirely clear, based on the timing of the study, whether the jump in satisfaction for Ask is entirely attributable to the “Ask3D” redesign, but that’s the likely explanation according to Larry Freed, President and CEO of ForeSee Results, which sponsors and interprets the ACSI e-business report.
Source: ACSI (2007)
The satisfaction data clearly don’t correlate with search market share. I asked Freed in this context why people should care and pay attention to the ACSI. Freed was confident that “search market share reflects past behavior. But the ACSI is predictive of future consumer behavior.” He said that historically it has been a very accurate gauge of future consumer behavior in other industries. He added that Google’s decline was a second dip in a row after a smaller decline last year.
Consumers in the survey are not asked to tell researchers why they’re rating a selected product or service the way they are, so they must interpret and draw inferences regarding why one engine may have received a satisfaction gain and another a loss. Freed believes that consumers were rating Yahoo overall and giving high marks to the home page redesign and the new mail beta client, among other positives. He argues that consumers want to see change and improvement and that Google has not kept pace with those expectations. In a piece of written analysis, Freed argues:
In fact, not much has changed for the average Google user in the last few years. The innovation and technology that Google originally brought to search was a giant leap ahead of the competition. However, Google is now taking only small steps that are undetected or ignored by the mass population of search users.
I challenged Freed that there were numerous changes at Google (e.g., in Maps, Universal Search) but he countered that consumers were either not aware of these changes or they were too incremental to gain much notice.
Regarding AOL’s decline, Freed attributed it largely to transition issues and the fact that AOL has been dogged by customer service problems surrounding cancellation of its dial-up ISP services. Freed adds (from his written analysis):
AOL is still having a hard time differentiating itself from the industry leaders. Its search function clearly loses to Google’s. Its portal is inferior to Yahoo’s. It competes with MSN in terms of offering fresh content and music, but MSN seems to be doing it better, at least bigger with concerts like Live Earth.
MSN/Live Search was basically flat year-over-year, with “nothing to truly set MSN apart from the rest of the field,” according to Freed.
There is the question of whether consumers were truly rating “apples to apples” in the case of the portals vs. Google and Ask. But if Freed is correct and these scores are predictive of future consumer loyalty and behavior, then we should see some shifting in search market share in the next 12-18 months. Regardless, it suggests Ask and Yahoo are on the right track and Google should see these data as an early warning sign and make some adjustments to avoid further declines — and potential market share losses — in the future.