Customer satisfaction with online information-retrieval services is on the rise, reaching a record high and revealing a shift in the way people are seeking out content, according to a new study.
To gauge how effectively businesses are satisfying consumers’ needs, researchers at the University of Michigan developed the American Customer Satisfaction Index, or ACSI, a 100-point rating scale they apply to various sectors of the economy. The ACSI model measures how well a business performed against customers’ expectations.
Partnering with private research firm ForeSee Results, the report’s authors found that Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is the most user-friendly of all the major portals and search engines.
Google’s ACSI score of 86, up 10 percent from last year, places it among the top businesses that the researchers have measured in all industries. So far this year, the only ones to top it are the carmakers Lexus and BMW, which each scored an 87. Matching Google’s score were Toyota and Honda.
Within the Internet industry, Google’s ascendancy betrays what the researchers identified as a major shift in how people are using the Web to find information.
“People are starting to go directly to the Web site or use bookmarks if they know what they’re looking for, rather than using a portal,” Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results, said in a statement. “And if they don’t know where to find it, they’re going to use a search engine. Google is best positioned to take advantage of this trend, while the rest are struggling to maintain relevancy.”
That conclusion meshes with a recent study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which quantified Internet users’ increasing dependence on search engines.
In aggregate, e-business consumer satisfaction rose 5.5 percent to 79.3, a record high for the industry on the ACSI index.
The researchers attributed most of that lift to the dramatic rise in Google’s score, but they also suggested that a souring economy, particularly rising gas prices, could be contributing to a more favorable view of online services.
On the ACSI scale, e-business is comprised of search engines, portals and news and information sites, such as MSNBC.com. E-commerce sites are measured as a separate category, scoring an impressive 81.6 in the most recent study.
As for Google’s e-business competitors, Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) came in second, posting a customer satisfaction score of 77, though that was a 2.5 percent drop from last year. Though it could be accurately be described as both a portal and a search engine, Yahoo does not stand to benefit from the gradual migration of Web users away from content portals that the researchers identified.
They also suggested that Yahoo’s responsiveness to consumer preferences might have been compromised by the considerable distraction of Microsoft’s (NASDAQ: MSFT) ill-fated attempt to acquire the company.
For Microsoft’s part, its ACSI score held steady at 75. The researchers concluded that Microsoft’s own efforts to build usage of its search engine have fallen short, and said that while the Yahoo bid would have increased its market share, the impact the transaction would have had on customer satisfaction was far from clear.
Rounding out the top five search engines, Ask.com posted an ACSI score of 74, and earned high marks from the researchers for its privacy efforts and continued commitment to improving the search experience.
AOL posted a 3 percent increase with a score of 69, but the researchers weren’t high on its prospects given that its business is more purely aligned with the portal model than any of the others.
Among news sites, MSNBC.com took the top spot with an ACSI score of 76, followed by ABCNews.com (75), NYTimes.com (75), CNN.com (73) and USAToday.com (73).