Is Yahoo the most "satisfying" search engine of all?

For the first time, Yahoo beats Google in a well-regarded survey of customer satisfaction.

Published August 14, 2007 4:08PM (EDT)

The American Customer Satisfaction Index project seeks to measure an elusive thing -- how "satisfied" are we with the companies that rule our lives? Google has dominated the ratings for a long while. The ACSI asks people to measure companies across a range of factors, and then it compiles the results into a 100-points scale; in 2002, Google's first year in the survey, the company won 80 points -- and since then, until now, it's hovered above that very fine mark. As Greg Sterling points out in Search Engine Land, though, in the latest ACSI survey Google posted only a 78, and for the first time its rival Yahoo outranked it, winning 79 points.

Why? And, more importantly, what do the numbers mean? Google is just one point below Yahoo, but it fell by 3.7 percent from last year, while satisfaction with Yahoo increased by 3.9 percent. The mystery here is that if customers really are less satisfied with Google today than they were last year, they're not really behaving that way. Google's share of the search business has grown since last year; Yahoo's has fallen.

Larry Freed, the CEO of ForeSee Results, the private company that sponsors the ACSI's surveys, tells Sterling the satisfaction numbers predict future behavior -- that is, Google's down-trending satisfaction indicates that its market share will shrink, while the upswing in satisfaction for Yahoo can only mean good things.

If Freed is right, stands to see gains as well -- its satisfaction score rose from 71 to 75 points, 5.6 percent over the year.

Freed even has an explanation for why Google's rivals might be catching up. Google users are bored; Google, in the beginning, was clearly the best search engine on the Web. Today, though, Google's innovations fall into the category of "small steps that are undetected or ignored by the mass population of search users," he says.

Sterling, like me, finds that hard to believe. To me, Google circa 2007 -- the search engine as well as properties like GMail, the Reader, and News -- offers a far superior experience than Google of 2002.

But perhaps Freed is right; maybe most people don't notice these innovations. It's hard to keep people satisfied long.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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