Yahoo & MSN Closing the Google Gap

While Big G continues to maintain its leadership position in the eyes of web searchers, a new study finds that Yahoo, MSN Search and Ask Jeeves have all made significant improvements over the past year and are narrowing Google’s mindshare advantage.

The study was conducted by Keynote (formerly Vividence), following up on a previous survey conducted last May. The Keynote “Customer Experience Rankings” for the search engine industry are based on research with 2,000 consumers as they interacted with Ask Jeeves, Google, Lycos, MSN Search and Yahoo Search.

The primary finding of the study was that Google continues to lead in most of the key areas measured, but has not made any significant improvements or progress in the minds of users since the previous study.

Keynote Customer Experience Rankings

  1. Google
  2. Yahoo Search
  3. MSN Search
  4. Ask Jeeves
  5. Lycos

“Google is king of the user experience, still getting high rates of customer satisfaction and loyalty,” said Dr. Bonny Brown, director of research and public services for Keynote.

But Yahoo and MSN both made significant gains in several key areas, largely closing the perception gap with Google. Ask Jeeves also received improved ratings, though not to the same degree as Yahoo and MSN. The study looked at more than 250 metrics, including indicators for brand impact, future usage, customer satisfaction and customer loyalty.

Keynote attributes the gains in positive perceptions to changes made by Yahoo and MSN during the course of last year. Yahoo introduced local search in mid-2004, and the study results suggest that this may have helped Yahoo’s overall scores. Yahoo showed significant improvement in the ranking of the quality of its local search results, tying Google as industry leader in local search.

Despite this impressive progress, the quality of local search results was an issue for many. Across all search sites, almost one in four (22%) said that local results weren’t relevant or were not ranked appropriately, suggesting there’s still lots of room for improvement.

For its part, MSN Search began separating sponsored results from its Web search results in July 2004. Keynote says this change led to a significant improvement in overall user experience. More than 47% of MSN users described the site’s sponsored results as very useful in the most recent study, as compared to just 37% in the previous study.

Shifting Favorites

Since the last study, Yahoo has boosted the number of users who said they would consider the site as their primary search engine by more than 20% and MSN by almost 30%.

Perhaps the most significant finding in the study is that searchers are more fickle than many people think. Even though 75% of users say they have a favorite search engine that they turn to first, 50% will turn to another search engine as an alternative if they don’t get satisfactory results.

And surprisingly, as many as 20% of users regularly use different search engines for different types of searches, meaning all the major search engines are getting significant exposure.

Although this seeming lack of searcher loyalty could be troublesome, other measures offer a different perspective. More than 81% of Yahoo users and 61% of MSN users said they would continue using the search engines in the future, as compared to just 72% of Yahoo users and 55% of MSN users in the previous study.

So even though searchers are willing to “search around,” overall satisfaction with the major search engines continues to improve.

I plan to take a closer look at the results of this Keynote study soon, digging more deeply into the methodology used and how the conclusions were formulated. Stay tuned.

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