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Ask Jeeves CEO: "We Are Focused on Core Search"

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Now that Ask Jeeves is part of aggressive online powerhouse InterActive Corp., what's next for the search engine and its various services? Search Engine Watch editor Danny Sullivan probed for answers in a recent conversation with Ask Jeeves' CEO Steve Berkowitz.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 8-11, 2005, San Jose, CA.

In light of the acquisition of Ask Jeeves by Barry Diller's InterActive Corporation—bringing the number of competing portals with a strength in search to six (Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL, and Lycos being the others)—Ask Jeeves CEO Steve Berkowitz was a natural choice as the featured keynote speaker at Search Engine Strategies on August 9, 2005.

Although session attendees weren't packed to the rafters as they had been for previous keynote conversations with Sergey Brin and Jerry Yang, this was one of the most eagerly-anticipated sessions at the San Jose show, as onlookers were curious to see what kinds of waves IAC intended to make in the search space now that it had thrown its many-feathered hat into the ring.

Conference chair Danny Sullivan prodded Berkowitz on a range of topics, framing the session optimistically by comparing IAC to a promising "fourth television network," as with Fox in its early days. Many of the responses were insightful, but as with all search executives being asked to speculate on product development, offered only a dash of substance. Granted, without screen shots of sample queries and typical user experiences, it really is hard to talk about what search engines do.

For now, the official company line is that Ask Jeeves is, as Berkowitz stated, "focused on core search," meaning that the technology team is simply focused on building a superior search engine, and that the IAC play is by no means a strategic intervention only that considers search as a mere commodity. This stance was confirmed in a recent vnunet.com interview. Asked if Jeeves will "shine by being the glue across the IAC portfolio," Berkowitz replied: "No, it will shine in search."

Berkowitz pledges that he will continue working to change consumer perceptions of the Jeeves site: "We're trying to get people to realize we're not a question and answer service." Given Jeeves' current weak but idiosyncratic mindshare (in fourth place or fifth place as far as consumers are concerned, but with many believing that the engine's unique feature is the ability to answer natural-language questions), this sounds like a tall order.

One bold way to accomplish such a rebranding could be to drop the Jeeves brand entirely, redirecting visitors to a new, improved Excite Search (since IAC owns this beloved but relatively dormant brand). This would hypothetically provide IAC with a new product that can make a spirited bid for search supremacy without being forced to answer questions or play a lovable butler. In the background, a unique question-and-answer service could be developed and relaunched in a couple of years as a separate "upstart" property, or a new character could be launched for kids—one that resonates better than a butler (no matter how svelte or studly).

For now, though, all we're able to gather from Berkowitz's comments is that Jeeves is focused on core technology and further recruiting both new hires and internally from existing IAC talent with the goal of, as he put it, "kicking ass and taking names" in the search space. Even if one of those asses is Google's, that doesn't necessarily mean ending the current advertising partnership with the company when it expires in 2007. In fact, although Jeeves wants to build a more direct relationship with its advertisers, Berkowitz can "see the Google partnership continuing forever."

Berkowitz addressed rumors about whether Ask Jeeves would change its name. Some believe that IAC chief Barry Diller is not fond of the Jeeves character, but that leaves observers scratching their heads at the possibilities. Will it be shortened to simply Ask.com? Or will they go way out and wild and take my advice and bring the beloved Excite brand back to life? We'll have to wait and see.

Sullivan asked about the future of search and how it affects IAC as a player. "It's about focus" and increased innovation around the core," argued Berkowitz. But it's worth asking: how will this commitment to search technology proper play out in the real world? After all, Amazon has a serious focus on search, and this has helped the company make more profit. But when it took its search engine, A9, to the people, the response was lukewarm. When will IAC finally admit that the search engine they just bought won't win the hearts of searchers, but rather, will help IAC's many operating companies?

To the outside observer, especially one relatively familiar with Ask Jeeves, it's those operating companies that are most impressive. Most in the search industry think highly of the Teoma search technology. But few think it's likely to significantly increase its current single-digit market share (and the comScore 6.1% share number cited by Jeeves execs seems optimistic to begin with).

Attendees at this session seemed more impressed by the phenomenal category leaders that IAC has assembled, to say nothing of Berkowitz's ability to recite them all from memory despite his short tenure with the company: Ticketmaster, CitySearch, Expedia, LendingTree, Match.com and others. Raise your hand if you're a search wonk and you have a weakness for one or two of the above services, but never use Ask.com.

These are important companies whose development surely relies to some extent on having a leading team of specialists in search technology and online advertising. If IAC's acquisition of Ask Jeeves were only to result in the strengthening of the company as a whole behind the scenes, rather than reinvigorating Ask as a leading consumer brand in a direct relationship with searchers, wouldn't that be impressive enough?

For now, though, the "kick ass and take names" strategy is the official line. Diller, according to Berkowitz, has become passionate about the features of the Jeeves technology, "loves the fight," and "understands the investment necessary."

Media moguls have invested heavily in search engines before, however.

In light of recent trends, such as Google offering unprecedented salaries to lure top talent from the likes of Microsoft, the required investment could be heavy indeed. Berkowitz rightly recognizes that the "search industry attracts the best and the brightest," and that Jeeves' success depends a lot on pitching new recruits in a creative way. One advantage to working for a property like Jeeves, argued Berkowitz, is the degree of clout accorded new talent, which just isn't possible at a much larger company. "People want to feel they can move the needle."

Those same people also like stock options, which is another advantage startups have over companies whose stock has already appreciated to nosebleed levels. To really attract Silicon Valley talent, IAC might do well to spin off the search division as a separate company with publicly-traded stock (ticker symbol XCIT anyone?). Some of the best and the brightest would rather gamble on another big score rather than taking the safe salary with the leading companies, with less upside potential. This is not without recent precedent. In August, IAC completed a spinoff of Expedia as a separate, publicly-traded entity.

Industry veterans have seen them come and go, and the reality is, few companies have made a long-term go of it in the search business. Webcrawler, Magellan, Infoseek, Inktomi, Altavista, Excite, and many others came and went. Many showed great promise in the early going but couldn't keep users coming back, or fell victim to spam and obsolescence. Search companies—all but Yahoo thus far, and maybe Google—seem to have life cycles.

A question worth asking is: under IAC or not, is Ask Jeeves at the beginning of its life cycle, or near the end? Is the Excite brand about to get another life? Diller and Berkowitz and senior Ask Jeeves engineers may have some insight into those questions, but primarily, it will be the next generation of brilliant young minds themselves—those entering the dot-com workforce—that decide which companies they'll join, and thus which will ultimately lead the pack. Recruiting those great minds will be a key challenge for Ask Jeeves as IAC vies for search supremacy. And lest we forget: they'll need lots and lots of servers.

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

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the Keynote Conversation with Ask Jeeves's Steve Berkowitz discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

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