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Ask.com's New Motto: Be Evil?

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More coverage of Danny Sullivan's keynote conversation with Barry Diller at Search Engine Strategies conference, continued from yesterday's Danny Sullivan Asks Barry Diller.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, February 27 - March 2, 2006, New York, NY.

Search Engines & Social Responsibility

When questioned on social and political issues as they intersect with his business operations, Diller offered nuanced takes.

His views on doing business in China were measured, giving credit to Google for weighing the good of increasing access to information against the drawbacks of seeming to condone a repressive regime. IAC operates several businesses in China, and he acknowledged that "in situations like this, you ask yourself whether you can stomach it—the word is stomach. Of course you might also want to say you would like their system to be as open as ours. Such is politics, not business." There are rarely simple formulas in either realm.

Speaking of good and evil, Sullivan asked Diller if he thought Ask needs a catchy slogan like Google's "don't be evil." Pausing for dramatic effect, Diller mustered an authoritative baritone for his reply: "Be Evil." The audience roared its approval.

At this point Diller was eager to turn the discussion back to the pragmatic side of search, suggesting an Ask slogan could be "use tools, be human," and insisting that as search evolved, the tools that are best for the job would evolve. "Search is an evolutionary process," he argued. "It's not simply ten blue links."

Diller was firm on the question of what he'd do if the government made further requests for private search data (as with the recent Department of Justice requests made of Google). "We would resist it." He added: "It's in the 1st amendment." He also reminded the audience of the wider context of business data and the responsibility data-centric businesses of many types have to protect customers from loss of privacy. Several IAC companies maintain large files of credit card data and other personal information about customers. "We have an absolute obligation to protect it. If we want people to trust us, we must uphold that duty. Privacy in this area is absolute."

Sullivan asked if Ask.com would privilege "its own verticals" on some search queries, as has been relatively common practice at Yahoo, MSN, and AOL, in particular. Diller's long answer added up to a yes, with a recognition that information that is too slanted would turn off searchers. Because IAC has "invested in the information," it would "give them that information where it advantages users," but ensuring that this "doesn't give them a bad experience." Savvy searchers will want other valuable information "to be there 'on par'."

Diller lit up when asked about the difference between search and the previous businesses he's run. "I functioned all my life in narrative, in telling stories, before I got into electronic retail," he said. What's different about search is that it's "not passive—it's interactive." Diller recalled: "The only epiphany in my life was coming to QVC in 1992 when I saw a screen being used in a different way. I'm never going to lose that curiosity."

Sullivan asked about what Diller's team looked at when they considered a potential acquisition in search. At first, Diller admitted, "we spent a long time thinking of search engines defensively—could they disintermediate Expedia, etc.—but next, we asked, 'is there an opportunity?'"

The opportunity, Diller maintains, is that no media business in history has held at 30-40% market share. This analysis, though, depends on whether you accept that search engines or web services companies are like 'media' businesses (so, a media mogul like Diller or Semel logically descends from the heights to manage one), or whether they're more like technology standards (so better run by uber-geeks like Gates and Schmidt). If Diller's right in his characterization, Ask is poised for growth.

A further condition would seem to be admitting that IAC's properties must eventually be knitted together in a more self-conscious portal model with Ask as the glue. The "holding company" patter would need to be traded in for a self-consciously cohesive "media company" image. "Media company" or "portal" aren't quite the right terms for IAC, though. Given that they have a deeper focus in direct ecommerce plays in key fields than most of their competitors, and less focus in other areas, "The Ecommerce Portal" might be the best unofficial description for the group. Searchability is as integral to this group of web properties as it is for Amazon.com, so a vibrant search technology division can't help but improve operations. Perhaps not coincidentally, IAC is worth just a bit less than Amazon ($9.7 billion to $15 billion). Users need world-class navigation.

Whatever the grand plan, it's clear that Diller and the team (including Jim Lanzone, who demonstrated a few of Ask's new features for the audience) are fully engaged and enjoying the opportunity to directly influence one of the most exciting media(?) companies in the world today. For that ride, it seems, they wouldn't trade all the tea in China.

And he won't be cheap. Promises Diller: "Capital investment will support Ask in a way they weren't before." Search engines have always been better when not forced to monetize every pixel. As I like to say when a search engine is content to undermonetize in a bid for market share: enjoy it while it lasts, dear user.

Andrew Goodman is the founder and principal of Page Zero Media and author of Winning Results with Google AdWords.

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NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.

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