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Ask Jeeves Serves Up New Features

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Ask Jeeves introduced several new features today, including a streamlined interface, image search, and what the company is calling "smart search" tools and features.

After testing the new features, I have to admit to being impressed. Though the pre-release version I used had some rough edges and didn't always work as expected, it's obvious that Ask Jeeves has improved. For those of you that have had unsatisfactory experiences with Jeeves in the past, I'd advise taking a new look.

"We're the first to admit that two years ago the search engine was not the best on the market," said Daniel Read, director of product development at Ask Jeeves, Inc. "But we believe that's changed."

Some of the changes are cosmetic; nevertheless they do subtly improve the search experience -- for example, bold-facing search terms in results. Notably, Ask Jeeves has bucked the recent trend of using tabs to access different content catalogs, replacing them with radio buttons that are "not as loud as tabs," according to Read.

Other changes are geared toward better understanding the user's information need, and responding with different types of results, as appropriate. "We know now that people actually have varying search needs," said Read. "They search in different ways."

Some types of searches are iterative, where a searcher progressively adds and refines keywords seeking a fact. Other searches are exploratory, with a goal of finding a broad set of results. Still others are task-oriented -- searching for a movie show time, or a currency converter, for example.

To satisfy these varying needs, Ask Jeeves has introduced several new types of results that are triggered based on the nature of the query. For any search, you'll still see web results served from Ask Jeeves' Teoma search engine, and a list of "related searches" based on the Direct Hit click popularity technology Jeeves acquired in early 2000.

But depending on what you're looking for, you'll also begin to see additional "smart search" features in action. One of these is a nifty picture search function, using an imagebase of about 200 million images, provided by a company called Picsearch. Unlike image search at other major search engines, Ask Jeeves picture search results do not include adult images.

"Smart answers" are also new. If a query is about a popular subject, or if the user specifically requests pictures or news, results are augmented in additional ways.

For example, if you ask for "Colorado Avalanche pictures" your results will include four thumbnails from the picture search catalog,in addition to web results and related searches. Similarly, a query for a current news event will often be supplemented with headlines from Moreover, or a list of editorially selected links to relevant web sites.

Finally, for popular subjects such as driving directions, language translation, acronyms and abbreviations, zip code look up, currency conversion, movie times, and so on, you'll be presented with interactive tools that help you calculate or find information you're looking for.

In an interesting blending of Jeeves' natural language processing and editorially selected sites, some queries, particularly those that can be answered with a specific fact, receive "direct answers" to the query.

For example, the query "capital of Zimbabwe" returns this sentence: "The capital of Zimbabwe is Harare." Beneath this is an editorially selected link to information about Zimbabwe from the CIA's world fact book.

Ask Jeeves is also rolling out clarification tools to help better process ambiguous queries. "We know that in some instances, people want clarification on their search," said Read. "Often when someone puts in a single keyword, they're needing another set of keywords."

To see the clarification tools in action, enter a query like "apple" that has multiple meanings. At the top of your results, you will see two prompts, asking "Do you want to know: About the fruit (or) About the company." Selecting one makes it easy to refine your query without additional typing.

"It's almost in the way of a dialog between a person and the search engine," said Read.

In addition to the new search features, the Ask Jeeves toolbar has also been upgraded with two new features: "Get Map" lets you type in an address or zip code and get a map of a location, and "Zoom" which enlarges both the fonts and graphics of the Web page you're currently viewing.

Read promises more improvements to Ask Jeeves in the future. "Part of the strategy is to roll more of these smart tools out," he said. Read hopes that users will increasingly view Ask Jeeves as a top-tier search engine, and not just a question answering service.

To persuade users to become frequent visitors, the company will continue to leverage its technology and editorial staff to add new features. "We want to capitalize on that and roll other more intuitive experiences out," said Read.

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