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Yahoo, Microsoft gaining ground on Google

Consumer survey of search engines keeps Google in the No. 1 slot, but two big competitors are closing the gap.

Google remains the favorite of search consumers, but Yahoo and Microsoft are closing the gap, according to a new survey.

The survey of 2,000 consumers conducted by market researcher Keynote Systems ranked Ask Jeeves in the fourth place and Lycos in the fifth spot.

Keynote ranked search engines based on consumer opinion and brand affinity, as well as on qualitative and behavioral data monitored as people performed tasks on these Web sites.

However, Keynote said it found that actual search results returned by the five search engines do not differ significantly. Actual consumer success in doing complex searches showed that the performance of Lycos, Ask Jeeves and Microsoft's MSN was as good as Google and Yahoo.

The search market has become highly competitive, especially in the desktop search segment. Recently Yahoo joined MSN, Google and Ask Jeeves in announcing a search system that weeds through large amounts of personal data on computers.

Search engines are also diversifying into corporate intranet search.

"Google is the king of customer experience in the search engine industry, but Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves are improving," Bonny Brown, director of research and public services for Keynote, said in a statement. "Given the open nature of the Web, as these sites continue to improve the user experience, they will undoubtedly begin to attract more users and improve user loyalty. Obviously this will impact the advertising side of the business."

Keynote said Yahoo and MSN have improved since the last study published in May 2004. Yahoo's better performance is attributed to its expanded local search service and a new search results page. Local search is considered a key indicator of consumer satisfaction, as nearly one in four searchers is not happy with the local results they get. Ask Jeeves also performed better due to changes in its local search service.

The credit for MSN's showing goes to separation of sponsored results from Web search results, Keynote said.

Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves also improved their standing in the future usage index, which reflects chances of consumers using a specific search engine as their primary search tool and to return to the site in the future. Google retained its top position in this ranking.