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Ask.com Launches Major Updates

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Ask.com has stepped up its game, launching a new multi-faceted search interface that sets it apart from other search engines, and giving Google users a legitimate reason to give Ask.com a try.

The new version of Ask.com has been dubbed "Ask3D" for its 3-paneled search results which represent the three stages of each search: type a query, review results, and click through to content. While other search engines tend to treat this process as a step-by-step undertaking, Ask3D is presenting all three steps on a single page, to align more closely with the way people actually search, according to Doug Leeds, VP of product management at Ask.com.

"Google and other search engines, including Ask.com until now, have looked at search as a linear process, where one step follows another in a strict progression. What we actually know is that it's not linear at all," Leeds said. "People will type a query, review results, click through, then come back to review results, refine a query...it's an iterative process."

By putting information needed for each step in the process on one page, Ask3D makes it easier for users to search in that manner, and gets users to the information they're looking for and off the page faster, he said.

That strategy, as a pure search play instead of a portal strategy, is what will help Ask.com differentiate itself as the one search engine alternative to Google, Leeds said.

"Outside the industry, when people think about search, they think about Google. Yahoo ceded that territory to Google, and it shows in the way Yahoo has built its products. People don't go to Yahoo to search. They go there for e-mail, news, finance – these are all loss-leaders that can be monetized with search," Leeds said. "The only other search brand that's anywhere on the map is Ask.com. We're positioning the brand as the place to go for search."

Multiple Modules by Morph

The results in Ask3D go beyond Web pages to include images, video, news, weather, and other data. While Google's recent Universal Search release intermingles the various siloed search results into a single ranked list, Ask3D keeps those siloes separate, and only shows a certain type of media if it's relevant to the query.

For example, a search for rock band U2 returns Ask.com's usual Smart Answer at the top of the center column, followed by two sponsored listings and then organic search results, many with Ask's "binoculars" feature to pop-up a preview of the page without leaving the SERP. The right-hand column adds results for video or image searches, links to MP3 files from iLike, event listings from AskCity, and encyclopedia results from Wikipedia.

A search for Orlando brings up a map of the city and city guide in the Smart Answer atop the center column, and results for image search, news images, a Wikipedia page, weather and time in the right-hand column.

The type of results that will be returned for a given query are determined by a new algorithm called Morph, which Leeds describes as "an explosion of the Smart Answers algorithm." While individual algorithms for image, news, or video search determine the order within each type of result, Morph is responsible for determining that a search for U2 should return music and event results, or that a search for Orlando should return a map and weather.

Many of the modules presented in the right-hand column come from IAC-owned properties like Citysearch, Ticketmaster, or iLike. Others come from partners like InfoUSA or blinkx. While Ask had been experimenting with similar results to queries in its AskX interface, those results were not using the Morph algorithm, Leeds said.

Ask.com has tested the satisfaction levels of its results against those of other search engines using the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) methodology of Foresee Results. The old Ask.com scored a 71, while Microsoft and AOL scored 74, Yahoo scored 76, and Google scored 81, according to Leeds. With only some of the recent improvements implemented, Ask was able to raise that score to 82, and that was before the Morph algorithm had been applied to right-hand column results, Leeds said.

Query Refinement by Edison

In the left-hand column, Ask now presents options for narrowing or expanding a search, and shows related searches. In addition, when a user types a query into the search box, Ask presents the user with type-ahead search suggestions. By the time a user has typed in "or," for example, Ask is suggesting queries like "organic chemistry," "orchids," "Oracle," or "Orlando Florida."

A search for Orlando can be narrowed to "Orlando Hotels," or "Theme Parks in Orlando," or expanded to include area attractions like Universal Studios or Disney World. A search for U2 can be narrowed to "U2 lyrics" or "U2 tour," or expanded to include other bands like the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith. Each query also presents lists of related queries that a user may want to search on as well.

The query refinements are driven by Ask's new Edison algorithm, which is being rolled out over the course of the year. Its two main ingredients are algorithms Ask had been using separately: the user path analysis-based Direct Hit, acquired in February 2000, and the link analysis-based Teoma, acquired in September 2001.

The query refinements are determined mainly by examining sites that refer to a keyword and determining which of those sites should be considered experts in their content area. Edison uses those sites to build subject-specific clusters which allow it to know that Disney World is related to Orlando, for example. As users click on results for a given query, the more popular results are reevaluated to determine if they should be elevated to a higher ranking.

Home Page Redesign

Along with the new search features, Ask.com has redesigned its home page to have a clean, friendly feel. The various types of vertical searches previously available in its "tool box" menu now are accessible via "juicy buttons," as Leeds calls them. They are colorful, square icons, with rounded corners, linking to searches for Web, Images, City, News or Blogs by default, with other buttons available in a drop-down menu.

The home page can also be skinned with one of ten photos at launch, and eventually with a user's own photos. Default images include a misty forest, close-ups of flowers or wheat, or a sunset.

Ask's Marketing Strategy

Ask.com has a three-pronged marketing strategy, according to Leeds:

  1. Innovate in a way that matters to users.
  2. Become known as "the other search engine" in the space.
  3. Give people who already use Ask.com a reason to be excited about the brand.

The first and third steps are being addressed with the new features and redesign. The second step has already begun, with a $100 million campaign that includes both outdoor media and TV ads, designed to build buzz around the brand.

The quirky, attention-getting billboards proclaiming that "The algorithm killed Jeeves," or "The algorithm is from Jersey" have been stirring up conversation in the industry, not all of it positive. While some have praised the billboards, and the ensuing TV campaign centering on the algorithm, for piquing user interest, others think that some of the billboard messages, such as "The Unabomber hates the algorithm," go too far.

The edgy campaign was created by the Ask marketing team and ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, best known for its "Subservient Chicken" campaign for Burger King, and its recent "Un-pimp Your Ride" ads for Volkswagen. The goal of the campaign is to get non-tech users to wonder what an "algorithm" is, and ask their tech influencer friends, who will hopefully say good things about Ask.com, Leeds said.

"The idea is to stimulate discussion, and to reach a group one step past the tech influencers," he said. "To people in the industry, the message doesn't resonate because they know what an algorithm is. But if you don't know what it is, you're basically substituting the word 'technology' for 'algorithm,' and asking someone you trust. For them, it has a very different flavor."

The attention-getting campaign is merely the first step in a long-term strategy to position Ask.com as the only legitimate alternative search engine to Google, and become a brand people know and associate with search, Leeds said. The launch of Ask3D will give searchers that are already familiar with the brand a reason to give it another try.

Ask has a long road to reach the top of the search engine heap. According to the latest search market share numbers, Ask is number four, and has actually lost share in the past year.

According to comScore, Ask had just 5.1 percent of searches in April, compared to Google's 49.7 percent, Yahoo's 26.8 percent, and Microsoft's 10.3 percent. According to Hitwise, Ask had just 3.7 percent of searches in April, compared to Google's 65.3 percent, Yahoo's 20.7 percent, and Microsoft's 8.5 percent.

But there are many things that Ask.com is doing right. It's committed to developing both its search and advertising products, and has committed $100 million to drive user interest. On the search side, Ask has been innovating with its Smart Answers product, which searches multiple databases to return more targeted results on certain queries. They've made strides in local search with their AskCity product, and they're also doing some interesting things with Ask Mobile.

These new changes are significant, and should lead many users to at least kick the tires at the new Ask.com. It remains to be seen how many of those users will stick around for more than just a test drive.

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