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Ask Jeeves Serves Up New Features

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Ask Jeeves is rolling out two new enhancements today that help searchers quickly focus queries and get direct answers to questions without using complex commands or advanced search tools.

The query refinement enhancement, called Zoom, expands the "related topics" search suggestions displayed in the right column of Ask Jeeves search results. Web Answers provides direct answers to queries posed as natural language questions. "The new products are the culmination of 6 months of intensive work with our core search technology," said Daniel Read, Ask Jeeves' vice president of product management.

A Focus on Conceptually Related Queries

The Zoom query refinement feature offers additional search suggestions, but rather than presenting a list of related topics that are essentially keyword driven, as Ask Jeeves (and other search engines) have done in the past, the new feature presents suggestions that are conceptually categorized into three segments: Narrow Your Search, Expand Your Search and Related Names.

Suggestions in each of these categories are created on the fly. Rather than presenting synonyms or related keywords, Ask Jeeves uses clustering technology that identifies "communities" on the web that have information related to your query, and pulls the meaningful concepts from those communities into the lists of suggestions.

Suggestions appearing in the narrow your search category are similar to the "related searches" suggestions previously offered by Ask Jeeves. These search suggestions help you drill down on a particular topic.

The expand your search and related names categories are new. Rather than helping you drill down, they're intended to help you broaden your search, or explore tangential but related subjects.

For example, for the query "Miles Davis," narrow your search suggestions include Miles Davis discography, life of Miles Davis and so on. Expand your search suggestions include jazz, American bandstand and others. And related names include other prominent jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

The new Zoom feature makes it easy to get a wide range of relevant search results from a single query, without spending a lot of time playing with different keywords or using advanced search commands. Although other search engines offer query refinement suggestions, the variety you get with Zoom, allowing you to narrow or expand your focus, or find information about related people, is unique to Ask Jeeves and is a seriously cool feature.

A Different Type of Web Answers

Web Answers is a new feature that mines web pages in real-time looking for answers to queries formulated as questions. This is similar to the Smart Answers results Ask Jeeves has offered for some time, but rather than using structured information from sources such as the Wikipedia, the CIA Fact book and others, Web Answers extracts answers directly from content found on the open web.

For example, for the query "who coined the term robot" you get a Web Answer as the topmost result, with a snippet from a web page that says "In 1920 Czech writer Karel Capek's play R.U.R.: Rossums Universal Robots coined the term robot (from the Czech robotnik, worker) for mechanical man." You're also presented with a link to view all of the web results found for your query—an important feature, as we'll explain in a moment.

Web Answers are not available for every question and no specific trigger words will necessarily activate the service. Entering your query as a question seems to help—for example, the query "inventor light bulb" does not trigger a Web Answer, however, "who invented the lightbulb" does provide a Web Answer.

Question answering services are not new—in fact, Ask Jeeves built its initial reputation as a search service that understood natural language queries. But the earlier Jeeves was a hand-built system that didn't really provide direct answers. Rather, it featured a question database that pointed to editorially selected web pages as "answers."

The system worked reasonably well while the web was young, but didn't scale. Ask Jeeves significantly beefed up its algorithmic natural language capabilities with its purchase of Teoma in 2001, and since then has been quite good at handling natural language queries.

Other search engines also provide direct answers to questions. MSN Search, for example, provides answers from Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia when that information is relevant to a particular query. These results are labeled as an "Answer" at the top of search results.

Last month, Google also rolled out its own question answering service called Google Q&A. Like Ask Jeeves, Google mines open web content including material from the Wikipedia for answers rather than using a more authoritative reference work such as Encarta.

Google Q&A results (when found) are also displayed first, with the answer to your question displayed in green text, with a link to the page from which the answer was extracted labeled as "According to."

Yahoo doesn't offer an explicit question answering feature, but does have a number of search shortcuts that provide answers to questions such as "what's the time in London?"

But none of these services work by analyzing web content in real-time, based on your query, which is what Ask Jeeves does, nor are they as comprehensive.

Be Careful What You Ask For

While Web Answers expands Ask Jeeves' ability to provide direct answers to questions, a caveat is in order. Unlike the information delivered by Smart Answers, which is drawn from authoritative reference sources, Web Answers may—or may not—be authoritative or even accurate. In fact, some Web Answers may be flat-out wrong, or may be satire (Al Gore invented the internet).

In some cases you might also see multiple answers for the same question. This is useful since many questions have more than one answer (Where is Springfield?) or an answer that can be debated (for example, who designed the golden gate bridge).

This can lead to problems for searchers who do not carefully evaluate the quality of the search results they get. Read acknowledges this. "We're not just providing an answer, but we are also offering different opinions," he said.

Teachers might have issues when students cite a random web site surfaced in a Web Answer as "the" source. The good news is that all sources are listed, and carefully looking at the source can help determining the validity of the information. However, students still need to be taught that the source of information is an important consideration—and now with Web Answers, it's more important than ever before.

What's Next for the Butler?

Since the announcement that Ask Jeeves was to be purchased by IAC last March, speculation has swirled about the future of the search engine. Would it continue to provide unbiased results, or would it be skewed toward suggesting IAC properties?

Yesterday, speaking at a conference, IAC chairman Barry Diller put those fears to rest, stating that the company plans to increase its investment in the search engine, with the goal of taking market share away from industry leaders Google, Yahoo and MSN. With that goal, you can expect further enhancements to Ask Jeeves as it strives to differentiate itself from the traffic leaders.

Diller also hinted that the company's name might change. "What will it be called?" asked conference host and Wall Street Journal columnist Kara Swisher.

"Might be one of those words without the other," Diller answered, adding that the final decision on Ask Jeeves' new name isn't "finalized."

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the Ask Jeeves Adds "Zoom" & "Web Answer" discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

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