Making Sense of Google’s ACSI Decline

By now everyone’s read the headlines about Ask gaining and Yahoo! beating Google in consumer satisfaction according to the annual ASCI survey. There’s a good deal of ambiguity here, made more opaque by the fact that I didn’t see the original instrument or responses. Larry Freed, President and CEO of ForeSee Results, which sponsors the ACSI e-business report, said the following to explain Google’s two year decline:

Google has long been the darling of the ACSI e-business sector and more recently of the investment world. Its previous scores in the 80s rival the highest that the ACSI measures in any industry, online or offline. But this year, Google slips significantly, down three points and 3.7% to a 78, the only time Google’s score has dipped below 80 since it was added to the Index in 2000.

While remaining true to its core focus as a search engine through home page design and technology investment, Google has expanded to compete on many fronts, offering services ranging from maps to calendars to a fairly sophisticated and customizable portal. But while these new applications are competitive and may in some cases be superior to what’s already out there, the more important questions is: does anyone know they exist?

Google built its core search business with customer satisfaction and word of mouth alone, without using any advertising or marketing. Google’s home page is clean and non-cluttered: a quality that has long been considered an advantage. But, Google’s home page design may also be its downfall. People may not be taking advantage of Google’s additional capabilities because they are hidden on the home page (unlike Ask.com, which makes its additional functionality more apparent). Search still makes up more nearly 80% of visits to Google properties, while other functions like Google Earth and the Google portal do not yet enjoy widespread popular usage. Clearly word of mouth isn’t enough when it comes to making people aware of breadth of functionality available on Google.

In fact, not much has changed for the average Google user in the last few years. The innovation and technology that Google originally brought to search was a giant leap ahead of the competition. However, Google is now taking only small steps that are undetected or ignored by the mass population of search users.

Despite Google’s stumble in satisfaction this year, the advent of AdWords and the acquisition of Double Click has made an impact on the industry and secured Google’s supremacy. Google needs to carefully monitor its recent and significant downturn in customer satisfaction and make the appropriate adjustments, but it is still the dominant force in the search industry. Therefore, Google can afford small slips as long as it addresses the underlying issues, which are making enhancements and improvements that the majority of users can benefit from and enjoy.

(My emphasis)

Essentially he’s saying:

  1. Users don’t see much change from Google
  2. Users aren’t aware of Google’s other products/services

It’s very true that Google prefers to let its applications sink or swim on their own Darwinian merits (Checkout being an exception). However, there may be another factor at play here that didn’t get much exposure in the public write-ups of the data: user expectations.

It may well be that as users have become more sophisticated their expectations have also grown correspondingly. They mysterious black box of search is being asked to do more and more, and expectations may have risen to the point that there’s growing dissatisfaction with search results. In other words, expectations have grown faster than search quality. It’s also the case the content is proliferating rapidly.

This is the paradoxical sense that one gets. Even as search is now the dominant way people navigate to known and unknown points on the Internet — indeed it may be the only feasible way to do so — it seems to be failing in providing efficient information and answers that people seek.

Ask has sought to address this by putting much more content on the page and providing search-assist tools to structure user queries. Yahoo!, for its part, is rapidly adding more structured content to search results (Shortcuts). And Google is rolling out search personalization and Universal Search to improve results and exposure more “vertical” content.

I’m guessing that if you were to poll users their expectations of Google would generally be higher than for other search engines. This is just speculation on my part, but I’m guessing that may partly account for the decline observed. Google was once much better than others; now it’s not while expectations may be higher for Google.

What do others think?

One Response to “Making Sense of Google’s ACSI Decline”

  1. David Dalka - Creating Revenue and Retention - Chicago GSB MBA Says:

    University of Michigan Consumer Satisfaction Index Report 2007

    The report is out.  Greg Sterling has a great write up at Search Engine Land. Congrats to Yahoo! and Ask on their improvements!
    However, the numbers are extremely fine and as Greg asked the authors, “Why the disconnect between the satisfaction d…

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