Web portal traffic surges, search engines record dip

U.S. residents are less satisfied with search engines like Google Inc. and news Web sites like MSNBC.com, but happier with Web portals like AOL LLC, a study from the University of Michigan and ForeSee Results Inc. has found.

Customer satisfaction with search engines, in aggregate, dropped 1.3 percent in this year’s second quarter, compared with the same period last year, according to the Annual E-Business Report, based on the American Customer Satisfaction Index, produced by the university’s Ross School of Business. Among search engines, Google’s customer satisfaction fell 1.2 percent, while IAC/InterActiveCorp.’s Ask.com saw its score dip 1.4 percent.

Customer satisfaction with Web portals satisfaction climbed 1.3 percent in general, but Yahoo’s score plunged 5 percent. Meanwhile, AOL’s score rose a remarkable 4.2 percent, but the survey data was compiled before the company angered many by releasing members’ search engine records. Microsoft’s MSN score dropped 1.3 percent.

Finally, customer satisfaction with news and information Web sites sunk 2.7 percent, although CNN.com and USAToday.com each increased their scores by 2.8 percent. ABCNews.com and MSNBC.com each saw their scores drop 1.4 percent, while satisfaction with The New York Times’ Web site remained flat.

Grouped under the larger banner of “e-business,” these three categories — search engines, Web portals and news Web sites — increased their customer satisfaction by 0.8 percent, compared with last year’s second quarter. Despite its dip, Google ranked first in customer satisfaction with a score of 81, followed by Yahoo with 76. Tied with a 74 score were AOL, MSN, CNN.com and USAToday.com. Meanwhile, ABCNews.com got 73, MSNBC.com and The New York Times’ Web site both scored 72, and Ask.com had 71.

Larry Freed, the report’s author, found Yahoo’s steep drop in customer satisfaction significant, which he attributes to the company’s attempts to be “everything to everyone” by packing its home page with a lot of information and services and, along the way, possibly confusing its visitors.

“Last year, Google was number one, Yahoo was number two and the rest were fighting for third place, but this year Yahoo really dropped. That was a big eye opener,” said Freed, president and chief executive officer of ForeSee, a company that measures Web customer satisfaction. Among the companies mentioned in the report, only Ask.com is a client of ForeSee.

Yahoo begged to differ with the study’s results, saying in a statement that its research shows that Yahoo’s overall customer satisfaction has improved during the past year. Moreover, since its recent redesign, Yahoo’s home page has increased its unique visitors, page views, minutes spent and average usage days per visitor, the company said.

Google continues to do a good job of meeting its users’ expectations, while balancing its core Web search service with a raft of new offerings in areas like instant messaging, Webmail, online payments and mapping, Freed said. “Google had a minor drop, but it still leads,” he said.

The AOL increase is attributable to two main factors. First, the company has done a good job of morphing into a freely available Web portal, leaving behind its walled-garden approach in which it reserved its best content and services for paying subscribers. The second reason is more of a “false positive” — as unhappy subscribers abandon AOL, the company has fewer dissatisfied users, Freed said.

Meanwhile, news organizations continue struggling to cultivate the same level of customer loyalty on the Web that they enjoy in their original mediums, be it television or print newspapers. “In this category, we still see the difficulty of creating an online personality that leverages their traditional personality,” Freed said.

Looking forward, it will be interesting to see what is the fallout from the AOL search-engine records controversy. The incident has the potential to affect not only AOL but other search engine providers as well, he said. “Let’s see what the backlash is and how long the issue stays in the media. If it sticks around, it could change people’s perceptions of those involved” in the search engine market, Freed said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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