On a 100-point scale, Google, the highest scorer, dropped 1.2% from 82 to 81 points; Yahoo's rating declined 5% from a score of 80 to 76 points; MSN was off 1.3%, dropping for a score of 74 from 75; and Ask.com, which had the lowest rating, dropped 1.4% from 72 to 71 points. AOL is the only listed portal or search engine that moved up, from 71 to 74 points, a 4.2% bump.
Lack of innovation
"There's nothing new, there's not a lot of innovation going on. That is, I think, the downward pressure," said Larry Freed, president-CEO of ForeSee Results, a web-satisfaction measurement company that sponsors the ACSI's e-commerce and e-business measurements and has provided commentary on the results. He did note, however, that generalization doesn't apply to all of the measured sites. Both Ask.com and AOL have made rather dramatic changes over the last year, which most likely affected their results.
"We have found that as the market matures, consumers are becoming increasingly demanding of their search experience, which may account for the overall industry decline seen by the ACSI," said Jim Lanzone, CEO, Ask.com.
The study characterized Yahoo, AOL and MSN as portals while Google and Ask.com were categorized as search engines. The e-business measurements cited here were made by ACSI in the second quarter year to year. In spite of the portal and search engine drops, the e-business category overall, which includes news and information sites, portals and search engines, rose 0.6 points or 0.8%, the report said. The ACSI uses data from approximately 70,000 interviews with consumers and measures satisfaction in more than 200 companies, 45 industries and 10 economic sectors, the study said. Mr. Freed authored the commentary on the ForeSee Results report.
Representatives from AOL and Google did not respond to requests for comment.
Here's a breakdown of the sites rated by the ACSI:
Google: In spite of its one-point loss, Google held on to its highest-rated status. "Even as its services have been greatly enhanced, this online giant's primary focus is search, reflected in a homepage that is still basically a stark white screen with a search box," according to the report. Since it looks the same as it always did, users never had to learn to use a new screen, and it has retained a consistent image throughout the years, the study found. Mr. Freed said the one-point loss is a "minor decrease." Score: 82, -1.2%
Yahoo: Its rating drop is attributed to a busy home page. "The sharp decline in Yahoo's customer satisfaction score this year seems to show that Yahoo may be offering more options than its users need, or at the very least throwing them too many options at once," the report said. Yahoo, though, received this year's second-highest customer satisfaction score. Joshua Grossnickle, senior director of global market research at Yahoo, said his internal research shows user engagement and metrics are healthy, and said the statements made by the researcher are not substantiated by data. "The study itself is simply not detailed enough in its line of questioning to be able to ascertain the cause of any of those shifts," he said. Score: 76, -5%
AOL: It changed its name from America Online to AOL and it lost 2.8 million members in 2005, but its customer-satisfaction rating has dramatically increased, over 4%, the study found. Rather than hurting customer satisfaction, the loss of 2.8 million subscribers has helped. "In a decreasing market, they have a decreasing membership; that is going to naturally drive your scores up because all the fringe folks are leaving," Mr. Freed said. The other contributing factor is "they've done a great job with AOL.com and have really reinvented that over the last 12 months." Score: 74, +4.2%
Ask.com: This is the first time since ACSI began measuring Ask.com that it has fallen below AOL's score. ForeSee Results attributes the drop to the February relaunch from Ask Jeeves to Ask.com, which occurred right before ACSI's measurement. "Site scores go down for a short period as site users get used to the new design, and then if the design has been done well, scores go up again," the study said. Ask.com is very similar to Google, Mr. Freed said, but Ask.com offers slightly more on the home page than Google does. "They seem to be moving to a middle ground between everything on your home page from Yahoo to a very, very simple home page [like] Google's. ... They might be finding that right mix," he said.
Mr. Lanzone, Ask.com's CEO, said, "The one-point change is small when put into the context of the declines seen by the entire search market. As a result, we think this year's ACSI scores indicate great potential for strong Ask.com customer approval ratings in the future." Score: 71, -1.4%
MSN: The portal's one-point drop is just part of its "fairly steady" score due to its lack of "distinct personality or clear advantage," the study concluded. Lead project manager at MSN, Christine Andrews, responded to the survey with the statement: "Microsoft has collaborated with a number of leading content providers to deliver original, interactive content experiences to consumers, while maintaining an award-winning content portfolio including news, sports, travel, entertainment, video, money and more." Score: 74, -1.3%