Portals, news sites, must improve customer satisfaction

As far as keeping their customers satisfied, Web portals, search engines and news and information sites in the U.S. continue to improve but still have work to do, according to a report released Tuesday.

Web portals, search engines and news and information sites, grouped collectively under the e-business category, got an aggregate score of 72.5 out of a possible 100 in this year’s University of Michigan American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) study of this market. T

hat score falls short of the ACSI national cross-industry score of 74.4 and of the related e-commerce category, which includes online travel, retail, auction and brokerage sites and which got an 80.8 score in its last measurement.

However, the 72.5 score represents an improvement for e-business companies from last year’s 71.4 and from 2002’s 68.7. The University of Michigan has conducted this study for e-business companies every year in the second quarter since 2002.

“E-business companies are doing an OK job of meeting customer needs and expectations but there’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Larry Freed, president and chief executive officer of ForeSee Results, an Ann Arbor, Michigan company, which specializes in customer satisfaction measurement on the Web and which sponsored the study.

As Internet use continues to grow among people and businesses, it becomes more important for search engines, portals and news and information sites to provide high quality service to their customers, Freed said. E-business companies that fail at this will suffer the consequences, he said. “Customer loyalty and retention drive financial success,” Freed said.

Within this e-business category, the search engine segment scored the highest with 80 points, followed by the news and information site segment (75 points) and the portal segment (71 points.)

The search engine segment, which scored the highest in customer loyalty, grew its score from 78 in 2003 and 68 in 2002. The news & information site segment scored 74 last year and 73 in 2002, while the portal segment scored 70 last year and 68 in 2002.

Among search engines, Google Inc. lead the pack with 82 points, followed in a distant second place by Ask Jeeves Inc. with 71 points. Google, which led the search engine segment last year as well, saw its score remain flat from 2003, while Ask Jeeves raised its score by 2 points. A big customer-satisfaction issue search engines must continue to improve on is delivering focused query results that answer users’ questions without forcing them to wade through hundreds of links to find what they’re looking for, he said.

Meanwhile, Yahoo Inc. topped the portals segment with 78 points, followed by Microsoft Corp.’s MSN with 75 points and America Online Inc. with 67 points. Companies group under the “all others” heading collectively tied for first place with 78 points. As with search engines, portals must continue to improve the way they aggregate and present information to their users, he said.

Finally, the news and information sites category lacks a clear leader, since the highest score went to the collection of companies grouped under the “all others” heading with 75 points. Among Web sites with individual scores, MSNBC.com, ABCNews.com and CNN.com tied in second place with 74 points. The biggest challenge for companies in this category is establishing distinct online personalities to differentiate themselves from their competitors, Freed said. Right now, customer loyalty to these sites is low in general, he said.

Freed acknowledged that the boundaries between search engines, portals and news and information are getting increasingly blurred, and that, accordingly, competition is also crossing frontiers. For example, Google has been adding features and services that put it in competition with portals, while Yahoo and MSN are likewise expanding into search engine territory, he said.

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