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Yahoo And Microsoft Gaining On Google

Google remains the search leader, but Microsoft and Yahoo are narrowing the gap through improvements in customer loyalty and perception in the quality of search results.
Google Inc. remains the search leader, but its fierce competitors Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. are narrowing the gap through improvements in customer loyalty and perception in the quality of search results, a research firm said Thursday.

In a study of 2000 web users, Keynote Systems Inc. found significant improvements in consumers' experience with the search engines on Microsoft's and Yahoo's web portals, while the rankings of Google's site remained statistically flat. The San Mateo, Calif., company compared its finding with a similar study it conducted in June of last year.

Google, however, remained the "king of customer experience," Keynote analyst Bonny Brown said. "They meet the customers' needs, and customers are most satisfied across the board with Google."

But that doesn't mean the king can't be dethroned. Both Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN portal gained in two key areas studied by Keynote, which are the likelihood that users would return to the sites for search and that they'd consider them in the future for their primary search engines.

The percentage of users saying they'd return were 81 percent for Yahoo, 61 percent for Microsoft and 92 percent for Google. In June, the numbers were 72 percent, 55 percent and 93 percent, respectively.

For consideration as their primary search engine, Yahoo won over 61 percent of the users; Microsoft, 38 percent; and Google, 84 percent. In June, the numbers were 50 percent, 30 percent and 86 percent, respectively.

Yahoo's gains were linked to its local search capabilities, which have undergone significant improvements over the last six months, Brown said. Local search, in general, is an area that draws the most complaints from consumers, who often find that the results don't match their needs.

"It's an area where search engines can improve, and Yahoo made some gains here," Brown said.

Microsoft, on the other hand, improved the perceived quality of its search results, which was linked to the company's decision to clearly separate sponsored links from general search results, Brown said.

Google, however, remains at the top of the heap because users believe the quality of its search results remain the highest in the industry, Brown said. Perceived quality of results continues to be the most important reason why consumers use a particular site.

"Google scores highest in general search quality," Brown said. "The perceived quality is what drives people to use the site."

In terms of overall ranking, Google was No. 1 in the study, Yahoo was second and Microsoft was third. Ask Jeeves and Lycos were fourth and fifth, respectively.

Because the demographics of the people used last June and in the latest study haven't changed, the findings reflect the effectiveness of the companies' marketing and search capabilities, Brown said.

"The competition really does seem to be heating up on these sites," Brown said.