Survey: Google, Yahoo Still Favorites in North America

For the second year running, a Keynote Systems study says Google provides the most satisfying search experience among North American users, despite competitive maneuvering from all of the other major search services.

The Keynote Customer Experience Rankings for Search Engine Sites tracked the search behavior of 2,000 users on AOL Search, Ask Jeeves, Google, MSN Search and Yahoo. The study is a follow-on to last year’s survey of North American searchers, and is similar to the Chinese survey that I reported on in yesterday’s SearchDay.

The study captured more than 250 metrics for each site and benchmarked 13 key business success measures, including user satisfaction, home page design and appeal, future usage and other factors. In addition to looking at general web search, this year’s study also looked at local and image search.

“Google is still the king—they really are a clear favorite across all of the search categories,” said Dr. Bonny Brown, Keynote Systems director of research.

Google outperformed its competitors in all 13 business success drivers measured in the study. Yahoo put in a strong second place showing in 12 of the 13 drivers measured. The top “impact drivers” that affected user perceptions were general search quality, home page appeal, special features and perceived site performance.

Ask Jeeves ranked third, followed by MSN Search and AOL’s public web search site. The study also looked at AOL’s member-only search and it would have tied Ask Jeeves in third place had it been available to all users.

What makes these findings particularly interesting is not Google’s performance, but the fact that users prefer Google despite Keynote’s finding that there is little actual difference in the relevance of results among all of the services. Keynote reported a similar finding last year, and it reinforces the idea that Google and Yahoo generate much of their satisfaction from factors apart from search quality.

That said, general search quality still has the greatest impact on user perceptions. Ask Jeeves showed the largest increase in general search quality over the last year, while MSN had the largest improvement in this area in the past six months.

In both cases, these jumps are related to search quality and the way sponsored listings are presented. Ask Jeeves reduced the number of sponsored listings it displayed this year, and MSN altered the presentation of its sponsored listings, more clearly identifying them and separating them from natural search results.

Yahoo is most competitive with Google in local and image search, according to Brown. In local search, 82% of Yahoo users reported task success, as compared to 83% of Google users, and 66% of Yahoo users were very satisfied with their search compared with 71% of Google users.

The study also found that users are taking advantage of specialized image search features, with 63% of Yahoo users and 56% of Google users clicking on the image search links when looking for pictures. There’s less awareness of the other specialized services, with 28% of Google users and 39% of Yahoo users clicking the local search links, and even fewer accessing Yahoo shopping or the Froogle product search.

Familiarity with a service plays an important role in user satisfaction. A full 82% of new or infrequent users sent to search on Google were “very satisfied” with their experience, compared to 53% “very satisfied” with their experience on MSN. However, among regular or primary users, Google scored 92% satisfaction rate and MSN an 84% satisfaction rate. Ask Jeeves had the highest jump in satisfaction after new or infrequent users had performed a number of searches and became familiar with the service.

The user interface is also an important factor in influencing searcher perceptions. “The home page is often a very strong factor in driving future usage—things that you wouldn’t think would have such a strong impact,” said Brown.

MSN was the only site to show improvement in the perception of results being up to date. AOL’s strongest performance was in the news search and product search categories, as well as in the special features category, but these results were primarily achieved by the success of its subscriber search site.

According to Brown, Google will maintain its competitive lead unless the other services make dramatic changes. What kinds of changes? Things like limiting the number of ads presented in results, bolstering the perception of having a cutting-edge back end, or improving other elements of design and organization in the user interface.

The good news for Google’s competitors is that user loyalty isn’t rock-solid, according to the study. “There certainly is a lot of hope for all of these engines because we’re still seeing people say they’ll switch if they don’t find what they’re looking for,” said Brown.

More information is available in today’s press release announcing the findings and in a PDF abstract describing the customer experience rankings study in more detail.

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