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Are Yahoo and MSN catching up to Google?

Study shows the second- and third-place search engines are gaining users

Google provides the best overall consumer experience among major web search engines, but Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN have made significant gains in popularity since May 2004, according to a study by Keynote Systems. Participants in the survey also chose Google as the search engine they would most likely use in the future.

Google, Yahoo, and MSN are the top three search engines, in that order, based on overall consumer experience, Keynote found in a survey of 2,000 consumers. Ask Jeeves and Lycos round out the top five, the San Mateo, California-based web performance monitoring company said.

Google also leads the study's "Future Usage Index", which indicates the likelihood of consumers to use a specific search engine in the future. However, Yahoo and MSN made significant gains in the Future Usage Index relative to their performance in the last study, published in May 2004. Keynote also reported a jump in the number of users who call Yahoo and MSN their primary search engines, as primary Yahoo users jumped by 20 percent from the last study, and primary MSN users increased by 30 percent.

Yahoo and MSN also grew in popularity compared to Google, said Bonny Brown, director of research and public services at Keynote. The report attributes MSN's improved consumer rating to the search engine's decision to separate its sponsored search results from non-sponsored Web results.

Creating an overall enjoyable consumer experience is crucial for search engines, Keynote reports, because 75 percent of participants in the study said they use one search engine primarily. On the other hand, 50 percent of participants said they would change search engines if they were unhappy with their search results on a given search engine.

Keynote bases its study, called Customer Experience Rankings for the Search Engine Industry, on data gathered from a group of 2000 US consumers age 18 and older. Although the research is conducted independently, at least some of the search engines involved in the rankings are Keynote clients. "Some of the [search engine] companies are customers," Keynote spokesman Dan Berkowitz said. Keynote does not disclose names of its search engine clients, he said.

Although participants used the internet at home or in their offices, they were monitored by Keynote throughout the whole process. "We asked (participants) first to do a product search for tennis shoes or a vehicle, or local searches like looking for movies and restaurants, eventually moving to more complex tasks like planning vacations," Brown said.

The research panel was compiled through a series on online recruiting methods, including opt-in email lists, partnerships with large portal websites, and sometimes from third party recruiters to acquire more specific demographics. Participants receive a $10 gift certificate to Amazon.com for each study they complete.

Despite the company's top ranking, a Google spokesman declined comment on the survey.

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