Web Mail Becoming The 'New Phone Number'

Yahoo tops the list of major web mail providers in customer satisfaction, according to a new survey, as e-mail for online consumers become as important as a phone number for communications.
Yahoo Inc. tops the list of major email providers in customer satisfaction, as email for online consumers become as important as a telephone for communications, a research firm said Thursday.

The value of an email address is reflected in the amount of time people stay with their provider. Like phone numbers, people avoid changing addresses to avoid disruptions in communications with others.

Fully 73 percent of people with Internet connections at home report having the same Web mail provider for more than three years, J.D. Power and Associates said. Additionally, 35 percent said they had been with the same provider for more than six years. Web mail is defined as an email service, often provided for free, that allows access to mail through a browser.

Fully 43 percent of residential Internet users say they use web companies like Yahoo or Microsoft Corp.'s MSN as their primary email account, compared to 57 percent who use their Internet service providers, J.D. Power found in a nationwide survey of more than 6,300 residential Internet users. Last year, 49 percent used Internet companies, and 51 percent ISPs.

The shift to ISPs is probably due to providers adding Web access to email accounts, which in the past were only accessible through software installed on a subscriber's computer. As a result, companies offering only Web mail may be increasingly taking the role of secondary provider, but it's too soon to tell.

"Two data points don't make a trend," J.D. Power researcher Steven Kirkeby said. Yahoo, for example, has bucked the apparent shift. Fully 20 percent of the respondents in the J.D. Power study listed Yahoo as their primary email provider for two years in a row.

Nevertheless, there's no doubt that email addresses are emerging as the phone number of the new millennium, Kirkeby said. More than half of the respondents of another J.D. Power study said they use email in place of telephone calls. In the latest study, 9 in 10 of the respondents check email at least once a day.

"It's all about email and instant messaging," Kirkeby said. "We're becoming a messaging culture."

Sunnvale, Calif.-based, Yahoo rated the highest among major Web mail providers, topping the list of all three factors contributing to overall satisfaction: ease of use, performance and reliability and features. Yahoo scored above the average score for Web-mail providers, while America Online Inc., Dulles, Va., and Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., scored below average.

Among instant-messaging providers, Yahoo topped the list again in overall customer satisfaction, scoring above average while rivals Microsoft and AOL, a unit of Time Warner Inc., scored below average.

Fully 35 percent of IM users in the J.D. Power survey reported sending and receiving messages daily, and only 6 percent said they "definitely" or "probably" would switch IM providers in the next six months.

This level of loyalty means providers are most likely to hold on to subscribers, and less likely to take them from rivals. This fact was one reason behind the decision, announced Wednesday, of Yahoo and Microsoft to allow their IM subscribers to communicate across both networks, which had been closed. The combined network, which is set to launch in the second quarter of next year, would have close to the same number of subscribers as AOL in the United States, the world's largest consumer market.

Google Inc., Mountain View, Calif., ranked highest among major search engines in user satisfaction, J.D. Power said. The study found 43 percent of respondents relied on Google as their primary search engine, increasing to 53 percent among people with high-speed Internet connections.

Google and Ask Jeeves, which is owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp, scored above the overall average for search in customer satisfaction, and Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft, which offers Web mail and search through its MSN portal, scored below average.

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