Privacy concerns, frequent design changes and aggressive advertising earn the social-networking giant low marks on a consumer survey.
A press release headline for the 2010 American Customer Satisfaction Index says it all: "Facebook Flops...Google Loses Luster; Bing Debuts Big."
Facebook may be winning popularity contests in terms of sheer number of users – it's expected to announced it has hit the 500 million-user mark Wednesday night -- but consumers don't actually like the experience of using the social-networking site, finds the ACSI survey of some 70,000 consumers, produced by the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and ForeSee Results, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based consulting firm. Facebook scored 64 on the survey's 100-point scale, which puts it in the bottom 5 percent of all companies surveyed, along with much-loathed airlines and cable companies (and below even the IRS's e-file service). Just 10 of the 223 companies in the survey scored 65 or lower.
The report noted that Facebook's status as popular but disliked is rare: "Usually customer satisfaction is intertwined with market success," the report says. "Customers are willing to suffer through a poor experience in return for the benefits Facebook provides."
Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee results, said Facebook's low ranking was a surprise, but that the company's research suggested it was due to consumer concerns about privacy, frequent design changes and aggressive advertising. (Should you advertise on Facebook? Click here.)
"Compare that to Wikipedia, which is a non-profit that has had the same user interface for years, and it's clear that while innovation is critical, sometimes consumers prefer evolution to revolution," Freed said.
Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes wrote in an e-mail to Inc.com: "We haven't reviewed the survey methodology in detail, but clearly we have room to improve. Building a simple, useful service is the best way to earn and sustain the trust people put in us. That's why we spend so much of our time and energy focused on improving the products we offer and introducing new ones. We look forward to the next survey."
With 141.6 million users in June, Facebook is the largest and fastest-growing social networking service in the U.S., says market tracker ComScore. MySpace – which, with a score of 63, ranked even lower on the customer satisfaction scale than Facebook -- is second with 66.6 million visitors.
This year marked the first time the ACSI measured social media websites, including Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia and YouTube. (Twitter wasn't included because so many users access it through applications other than Twitter.com.) Wikipedia topped the list with a satisfaction rating of 77, followed by YouTube at 73, Facebook at 64 and MySpace at 63.
In the search engine category, Google's customer satisfaction rating fell by seven percent to 80, but it was still the top name in the category. Microsoft's Bing debuted with a score of 77, followed by Yahoo! (76), AOL (74) and Ask.com (73).
Claes Fornell, a University of Michigan business school professor and founder of the ACSI, suggests Google's drop "may be related to efforts to expand well beyond its core search engine business." Pointing to Gmail, Google Talk, and Google Buzz, Fornell says that "in trying to become all things to all people, Google seems to have encountered some of the pitfalls that portals and social media sites face including concerns about privacy, which have led to an upswing in complaints about Google's policies and practices in the past year." Google controls about 70 percent of the total search market, with Yahoo! and Bing very far behind with about 15 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
Adds Freed: "Bing's first measure is impressive and could put some pressure on Google. The new search engine is already making gains in market share and using clever marketing and advertising to distinguish itself from the market leader.'
Inc. contributing editor COURTNEY RUBIN was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.