While customers think that e-businesses are getting better, performance varies widely from company to company, according to the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) study.
The e-business part of the report includes measurements of search engines, portals, and news and information websites.
The study identifies Google and Yahoo as two of the outstanding websites overall, according to Ann Arbor, Michigan-based ForeSee Results, the university's e-business partner.
The study, which measures the top 200 companies in this sector during the second quarter of each year, shows that America Online, though still not a top performer, has made a dramatic improvement in the past year and may be on the way to attracting more customers.
Overall, the ACSI e-business industry score improved year over year, up from 68.7 (on a scale of 0-100) in 2002 to a score of 71.4 this year.
Google consistently places at the top of the search engine category; it had a score of 82 this year, while Ask Jeeves improved its performance by seven points, to 69, according to the study. Search engine Alta Vista trailed its competitors with a score of 63.
Google's score shows that it has one of the strongest relationships with its customers of any kind of company, online or off-line, says Larry Freed, ForeSee's CEO, in the statement.
In the portal category, AOL is the most surprising story this quarter, making a dramatic six-point jump in performance. The increase brings AOL's score to 65, "barely a low pass, but an impressive leap in the right direction," the study says.
Yahoo is still the dominant player in this category with a score of 78, a two-point improvement over last year, and MSN also moved up two points to 74, according to the study.
"AOL's improvement is very, very impressive," says Freed. "People have said AOL was down for the count before and have been proved wrong."
In the news and information category, MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com tied with 74 points, followed closely by CNN.com and USAToday.com, which tied at 72. NYTimes.com brings up the rear again this year with a score of 70, down one point from last year.
"News sites show every sign of being, basically, a mature industry," Freed says. "The innovation that we see coming from hypercompetitiveness in so many online industries just doesn't exist in the news field."
Freed says two clear trends emerged when looking at the e-business category in the aggregate.
First, two of the three categories -- search engines and portals -- have clearly dominant players, though for laggers in the portal category, at least, catching up to Yahoo seems possible.
However, he says, in the search engine category, for other search engines to pull alongside or surpass Google seems like a long shot.
But he says it's important to note in the case of both the search engine and portal categories that the closest competition to the category leader isn't a well-known brand but "all others."
Second, Freed says, companies in the portal and search categories that lead their fields -- and are leaders in e-business in general -- are doing a good job of evolving their business models without losing customer satisfaction, loyalty and brand power.
"It is almost certainly not a coincidence that very strong customer satisfaction scores and the continued upward trajectory of these scores is happening in categories [search engines, portals] that did not exist prior to the Internet, despite continuing evolution of business model," Freed says.