The butler has gone into retirement, and Ask.com now sports a crisp new look with a number of impressive new features.
As I reported last week, the Jeeves character has officially been retired in an effort at rebranding the search engine to more aggressively compete with market share leaders Google, Yahoo and MSN. "The perception we want to achieve is that we are a serious search contender," said Daniel Read, Ask's vice president of product management.
In addition to a number of new features, Read said that Ask.com's core search functionality has been significantly upgraded, as well. The improvements are the culmination of years of development efforts based on extensive investment and user testing.
The new flagship site, Ask.com, sports a clean, crisp interface, which seeks to find the "sweet spot between the Google home page and the Yahoo home page," said Read.
Another new addition is a "Toolbox" on the right side of the page. The Toolbox features icons allowing direct access to more than 20 search tools, including maps, images, weather, dictionary, local and desktop search.
The Toolbox is similar in function to the tabs or links above all the other search engines that provide access to specialized searches. But with the new Toolbox, Ask has made it much easier and more intuitive to access specialized search tools.
"We've found through research that users are not aware that these kinds of tools are available for search," said Read, referring to the tabs or links above search boxes used by other search engines. This led to the development of a new type of interface for the Toolbox to showcase available search tools.
The Toolbox displays both the name and icon of each search tool, but can also be shrunk to display just the icons to conserve space. The Toolbox is also easily customizable. You can rearrange the tools by dragging them around to an order that you prefer, or change the display to include only those tools you use most frequently.
An API is available for the Toolbox, allowing users to create additional search widgets for the Toolbox. Ask is encouraging developers to extend the functionality of the Toolbox and will make third-party search tools created for the Toolbox available on its web site.
Encyclopedia search is one of the new features accessible via the Toolbox. Encyclopedia search extends the "direct answers" Ask has provided for several years with its "smart search" feature by providing content from Wikipedia, Houghton Mifflin and Columbia encyclopedias right at the top of a result page.
Ask has also incorporated a web-based desktop search, providing the ability to access local files and emails through a web browser, in addition to its existing standalone application.
One of the slickest new features is a mapping function. Mapping has been a highly competitive area during the past year, and Ask is up against some stiff competition from recent enhancements offered by Google, MSN and Yahoo. But the new mapping function from Ask is superb—visually appealing, easy to use and offering some slick features not (at least yet) available elsewhere.
Some of the features offered in the mapping function include:
- Dragable location pins that automatically recalculate directions, even when you don't know an address
- Right-click to add a location for any point on a map
- Build an itinerary with up to 10 locations
- Get walking directions, in addition to driving directions
- A "Play" button to take a visual test drive of your directions
- Open and close a left-hand information panel to enable wider map view
- Overhead map views taken through aerial photography, often with better visual resolution than satellite photos
One of the most significant changes is a reduction in the number of sponsored listings displayed on the first search result page. For years, Ask displayed so many sponsored listings that algorithmic listings were often pushed "below the fold" of a search result page. In recent months, Ask has reduced the number of sponsored listings it displayed, and now has gone a step further, displaying the fewest sponsored listings of any major search engine.
Ask also says that with the smart answers I mentioned earlier, it is also the only search engine to place editorial results above advertisements.
In all, I was quite impressed with the performance and quality of search results with the new Ask.com. The rebranding effort clearly goes beyond the mere cosmetic, offering viable and compelling alternatives to the other major search services.
This is Ask's best effort yet to get past the tarnished reputation it developed when it stumbled in the late 90s. Give the new service a try. I suspect that many people will be pleasantly surprised—some even to the point of adopting Ask as their primary search engine.
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