Google, search that satisfies

 Some pundits talk about Internet users having a “Google habit” that keeps them hooked on Google and keeps Google the no. 1 Internet search engine. That habit is far from harmful, and consumers don’t feel a need to kick it for a simple reason: Google gives them what they want.

That meme appears to be confirmed by the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, the University of Michigan’s well-known barometer of consumer satisfaction, which once again gave Google top marks among Internet search engines and portals.

Since it was first included in the study in 2002, Google has topped the rankings in seven of eight yearly surveys.

This year Google received 86 points, out of a possible 100, the same as a last year, and far above its nearest rival, Yahoo, with 77 points, also unchanged from last year. Microsoft and Ask.com followed close behind with 75 and 74 points respectively, and AOL was last with 70 points.

The survey was conducted before the release of Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine, and before Microsoft’s search alliance with Yahoo, which will make Bing the search engine on Yahoo. But those behind the survey say that consumers’ happiness with Google suggests that, despite early gains, Bing may have a tough road ahead.

“Bing gives Yahoo and Microsoft a chance to compete again,” said Larry Freed, president and chief executive of ForeSee Results, which collaborates with the university on measurements of Internet companies. But Freed said Bing would not succeed unless it did something different enough to cause users to think about changing their Google habit. “The biggest challenge for Bing will be changing people’s perceptions,” he said.

(Bing’s market share rose to 8.9 percent in July, from 8 percent in May, according to comScore. Microsoft, which changed its search engine’s name to Bing two months ago, is backing the change with a massive advertising campaign. It is not certain that it can sustain, let alone extend, its initial gains.)

Relying on studies to predict market conduct can be risky, and the University of Michigan survey, while well regarded, has not always been successful at pinpointing future user behaviour.

In 2007, for instance, Yahoo topped Google in the rankings, but that did not translate into gains in the marketplace. Similarly, that year, Ask.com did a thorough overhaul of its service that resulted in a large jump in consumer satisfaction but no discernible gains in the market.

Freed noted that the gap Google enjoyed over rivals was so significant that the company had little to fear, for now. “Google does a great job of managing consumers’ expectations,” he said. “They don’t overinflate them with a lot of marketing. They keep innovating and adding new features quietly, and the new features get out through word of mouth. It is really a brilliant strategy.”

Other surveys, however, show that by some measures, the gap between Google and Bing is not that large. So while Bing may face an uphill battle, it could still become a viable challenger to Google.

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