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Ask.com's Restless Pursuit of Search

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With all the attention that Google gets for its mammoth search market share, you would think it's impossible for anyone else to survive. But share does not determine profitability and, indeed, 4th place Ask.com is holding steady despite the volatility of external factors.

Despite Google's stronghold, the recent launches of Wolfram Alpha and Bing have exposed what many think are glaring holes in the search experience. But plugging these holes is something Ask.com has been attempting to do for years, with solutions similar to those put forth by Wolfram Alpha and Bing.

For its part, Wolfram Alpha is built on providing data and facts, but Ask.com was already providing those answers in their results. Bing appears revolutionary, unless you searched Ask 3D during its brief run.

They say imitation is flattering, but most searchers don't care whether Bing and Ask.com wore the same dress to the prom. What they want is results.

"We're not going to be satisfied until every user is," insists Ask.com President Scott Garell. It's one of his many iterations of a prevailing mantra: We won't rest.

In fact, Ask.com's consumer-centric strategy runs at full speed. Literally.

This year, Ask.com embarked on a large-scale NASCAR campaign. They're the official search engine for NASCAR, sponsor the #96 car driven by Bobby Labonte, and serve up crawl questions on the bottom of the screen during televised broadcasts of races.

NASCAR fans are one of the most loyal demographics in the United States. 25% of the country self-identifies as being a NASCAR fan and 17 out of the top 20 sporting events for attendance were NASCAR races.

The result of Ask.com's foray into NASCAR has been a positive one. There has been an uptick in searches for NASCAR-related keywords and the searchers are more likely to stick around and use Ask.com again.

It's not the first time Ask.com reached out to a passionate demographic. Previously, they skinned their front page to promote Autism Speaks, a nonprofit advocacy group. The skin is still available for users who wish to keep it permanently on their front page.

In May, they skinned their home page in a barter agreement with the movie Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian. Ask.com was featured in the movie in exchange for the 2-day flash image appearing on the home page. So far, the movie has made $167,706,959 at the box office.

Garell hinted at forthcoming marketing campaign similar to the NASCAR one, but thus far remains mum on the details.

These campaigns are just the tip of the iceberg for Ask.com. When Garell says he won't rest, he means it. Last year, Ask.com acquired the Dictionary.com sites and recently launched an new advertising campaign with Toyota Prius where they choose keywords for their display ads. Toyota has liked what they've seen so far and has bought more advertising inventory on the site.

Ask.com is also working on their Sponsored Listings. While Google is a partner in that effort, Ask.com decided not to renew their contract with LookSmart. They're working on the next generation of their Sponsored Listings platform, yet one more restless project on the Ask.com to do list.

Of course none of this matters unless searchers find good results. A few weeks ago, Ask.com announced that it's Q&A database had 300 million question and answer pairs. The questions come from answers sites all over the web. Since so many searchers on Ask.com type their query in the form of a question, the Q&A database is an integral part of the Ask.com strategy. Many of the Q&A pairs are also included in the main search results.

With all of these projects going on, it might be easy for the 6th largest network of sites to lose track of the little things. But Garell sees the whole picture, including the fact that it still takes searchers too many queries and too many clicks to find the answer they're looking for. He wants Ask.com's semantic technology to better understand searcher intent so that users find the answer they need the first time every time.

It's a big mission and one that not even larger search companies have been able to solve. Just like a good NASCAR race, you never know when an underdog is going to come along and shake up the leaderboard. And if Scott Garell has anything to say about it, the race ain't over 'til the checkerboard flag waves.


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