February 1, 2005, 12:00 AM

Gaining Ground

With studied improvements, Yahoo and MSN narrow the gap on Google. What’s next?

W ith the search engine industry expected to generate revenues of $8.9 billion a year by 2007--an enormous leap from the already-healthy $2.6 billion figure estimated by Piper Jaffray for 2003--it`s no surprise that the top search engines who will collectively realize the lion`s share of that income are battling it out for a bigger piece of the pie. While Google still leads as web users` favored search engine, search at Yahoo and MSN is closing the gap, according to a new study from web performance monitoring provider Keynote Systems Inc., driven by major bids on the part of Google`s competitors to improve service. And ultimately, those shifts in traffic stand to shift engines` shares of the paid search market.

Follow the eyeballs

"Google is the king of customer experience in the search engine industry, but Yahoo and MSN are clearly improving," says Bonny Brown, director of research and public service for Keynote. "Given the open nature of the web, as these sites continue to improve the user experience, they will undoubtedly begin to attract more users and improve user loyalty. Obviously, this will impact the advertising side of the business."

Users` experience with an engine is what keeps them coming back to it-or not-and it`s those numbers that give search engines something to sell to marketers, says Kevin Lee, CEO of search engine marketing company Did-It.com LLC. "Marketers go where the eyeballs are and eyeballs follow a good user experience," Lee says. "Google built its entire reputation around a better user experience and for a time attained quite a lead. But the lead is narrowing. Other portals now have an opportunity, if they capture searchers` attention and give them a good experience, to potentially take back slices of that market."

To get at users` experience across the top five search engines, Keynote surveyed 2,000 web users whose browsers it had equipped with technology that prompted them to do online tasks, asked them questions and captured their responses as they interacted with a search engine. The panel tried product searches, local searches and complex searches, such as vacation information and statistics, for example.

The Keynote Customer Experience Rankings for the Search Engine Industry looked at indices representing about 250 metrics to come up with rankings on customer experience with the engines. The rankings were based on a customer satisfaction index as well as business outcomes of users` experience with the engine. Business outcomes included a brand impact index, which measured aspects of users` experience such as whether the user assigned more positive attributes to an engine based on the experience, and whether the user`s perception of the engine`s brand image changed as the result of the experience. Other elements of business outcomes that factored into the overall score included a future usage index, which measured the user`s likelihood to use a site as his primary search tool, return to the site, or recommend it to friends.

Ad activity

Also measured under business outcomes was an ad activity index, which looked at elements such as the total of sponsored links a user clicks on in search results, and time spent on sponsored sites, though these measures were not figured into each engine`s overall customer experience score.

While Google`s ranking held steady at the top, it didn`t signi-ficantly improve its performance across the metrics, while Yahoo and MSN gained in several of the metrics measured in a similar study last May, according to Keynote. Relative rankings that place Yahoo in the number two spot, MSN at number three and Ask Jeeves and Lycos at numbers four and five, respectively, haven`t changed since the last study.

For example, Yahoo`s expansion of local search service since May lifted it to tie with Google in leading the industry in users` perception of the quality of local search results. Within the customer satisfaction index, users rated local search on such attributes as helpfulness, number of frustrations encountered while doing a local search, what kind of frustrations and other related variables.

Another key indicator of customer satisfaction, the perceived usefulness of sponsored search results, is identified by Keynote as one of the top drivers affecting user experience. MSN showed significant improvement on this metric since the last study, with more than 47% of MSN users describing MSN`s sponsored results as very useful, compared to 37% in the previous study.

Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves all improved their standings in the Keynote Future Usage Index, which measures the likelihood of consumers to use a search site as their primary search tool and to return to it in the future. Google stayed on top in this category but didn`t improve its standing since the previous study, while Yahoo boosted the number of users who said they consider the site as their primary search engine by 20% and MSN by almost 30% since May. More than 81% of Yahoo users and 61% of MSN users said they`d return to those sites in the future, compared with 72% of Yahoo users and 55% of MSN users who said so in the earlier study.

Brand impact

The study tracked brand impact as well as future usage metrics because the relative power of either to predict future success is a matter of some debate, says Brown. "In general brand is taken as more of a long-term positive indicator for the company, whereas future usage could be driven by more immediate concerns, such as a great promotion, for example," she says. "They both have something to say about how well the search site is going to do based on both an emotional element and a functional element. In other words, you might have the perfect widget for users, but if they don`t like you, they have a hard time doing business with you."

In a statistical analysis of the degree to which core factors such as a home page`s appeal or special features affected users` experience with the different search engines, perceived quality of search results came out as the strongest indicator correlating with success. "If a site did poorly on perceived quality of search results, it very likely did poorly on brand impact and future usage," Brown says.

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