Report: Consumers Still Love Google But Warm to Rivals

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Internet users still overwhelmingly rate Google the top search engine, but they are increasingly comfortable with the search experience provided by Yahoo and MSN, a study released yesterday found.


Keynote Systems conducted a study of 2,000 Web users to determine their satisfaction with search engines. The San Mateo, CA-based Internet performance consultancy released excerpts that show Yahoo and MSN have closed the perceived technology gap with Google in the eyes of many searchers.


Google maintained the top spot in consumer satisfaction, with 84 percent of users who tested Google in the survey saying they likely would make it their primary search engine. That figure is essentially unchanged from a similar survey Keynote released last May.


By contrast, 61 percent of respondents who tested Yahoo said they likely would make it their primary search engine, a 20 percent improvement. MSN had 30 percent more users say they would use it as their primary search engine, though it still tallied just 38 percent. Respondents could give more than one answer.


"Google is very well established as the best search engine in the eyes of the consumer," said Bonny Brown, director of research and public services for Keynote. "This time around, the ratings for Yahoo and MSN significantly increased. They're getting closer to Google."


Keynote saw an openness among searchers to try other search sites: 81 percent of study participants said they would return to Yahoo and 61 percent said the same for MSN. Both engines showed improvement from the study Keynote released in May.


After dominating Web search for years, Google has gained formidable rivals in Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN. Yahoo, which once relied on Google for Web search, has had its own search engine for nearly a year. MSN is just getting off the ground with its $100 million investment in Web search. It unveiled a test version of its search engine in November, but MSN still uses Yahoo for both Web search and paid listings.


Google's rivals have begun to dent its lead in the search market. According to comScore, Google's share of the U.S. search market fell from 35.6 percent in July to 34.4 percent in November. Meanwhile, Yahoo and MSN gained share. Yahoo's share of searches rose during the period from 29.4 percent to 31.8 percent. MSN was up from 14.5 percent to 16.5 percent. Ask Jeeves, over the same months, saw its market share fall slightly from 5.9 percent to 5.5 percent. Time Warner sites also declined, from 11.7 percent to 9 percent.


"Search engines are more about fashion than they are about technology," said Nate Elliott, an analyst with Jupiter Research. "Google is cool right now. In another year or two, it's entirely possible that some other engine will be the flavor of the month. These changing tastes have knocked off every leading search engine before Google. There's no reason to think it won't happen to them, too."


Keynote found consumer Web search loyalty is fleeting. Half of respondents said they try another search engine if their primary search site does not provide a satisfactory answer, and 20 percent said they use an alternative search engine for some searches.


"The technology gap is almost negligible now," said Daniel Read, vice president of product management at Ask Jeeves. "What you can see people closing is actually a brand gap. It's no longer a technology gap."


Search engines have begun working to build consumer loyalty through the introduction of new products. Google led the charge in October with the debut of a desktop search tool that integrates with its Web search engine. Google Desktop Search lets a user crawl his computer to find documents and files. MSN, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo have followed with similar products.


Elliott said tools like desktop search and personalized results serve search engines by locking users into one service.


"Sure, they know personalized search will make results somewhat more relevant, but really it's about the engines desperately trying to introduce a switching cost," he said.


George Reyes, Google's chief financial officer, this month told an investment conference that Google's competitors would have trouble matching the search giant's vast computing resources and brand image.


Keynote's study saw opportunities for Google rivals to establish customer loyalty in new areas like local search. About 22 percent of respondents said the local search results were not what they were looking for or were ranked incorrectly. Yahoo, which has put considerable effort into building and promoting its local search engine, tied Google for user satisfaction in local search. Keynote said local search satisfaction helped Ask Jeeves improve its overall customer satisfaction.


"We know this is an area of frustration for users," Brown said.


Brian Morrissey covers online marketing and advertising, including e-mail marketing and paid search, for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters


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