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A Closer Look at Ask's Smart Answers

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Ask.com has truly differentiated itself with the "Smart Answers" it returns for thousands of queries, offering facts, images and targeted links that respond directly to a searcher's information need.

This is the first article in a four-part series on the special information sections creeping into general search results, usually at the very top of the search engine results page (SERP). Ask, featured in this article, has Smart Answers. In the next three installments, I will also introduce Yahoo! Shortcuts, Google Onebox results, and Microsoft's Instant Answers. These articles will be brief introductions to the services with a lot of examples for you to explore.

Ask.com's Smart Answers are the informational links above the generic 10 blue links on many SERP pages. Many people are familiar with news headlines or images popping up for certain searches, but Ask has many other Smart Answers that are appearing more frequently. Ask says it is serving "millions" of these Smart Answers each day.

So what's the point of Smart Answers? I spoke with Ask.com's Director of Online Information Resources Gary Price to find out. "Smart Answers help save people time, effort, and aggravation by directing them to the best resources for their query," he said.

I'm going to attempt to split up the Smart Answers into three buckets: Fact/reference based, vertical search results, and expert/partnership driven, but in the end, many Smart Answers are a combination of all three, so these buckets are very fluid.

Fact/reference Smart Answers include information you might get by opening up an encyclopedia, dictionary or another authoritative and generally accepted resource. The sites providing this type of information to Ask are predominantly big informational databases like the World Fact Book, Wikipedia, The American Heritage Dictionary, Roget's Thesaurus, etc. Examples:

In most of the examples above, the keywords not in brackets seem to be trigger words and the keywords in brackets are variables. For instance, in the first example above, you can substitute 'Madagascar' with any other country and trigger a Smart Answer. As opposed to President of Tunisia, you could search for President of Peru and get a similar Smart Answer.

Vertical search Smart Answers are pulled from Ask's non web-search catalogs, including results from image search, news search, shopping search, map search and so on. Examples:
Again, in the examples above, the keywords not in brackets seem to be trigger words and the keywords in brackets are variables. For instance, you can replace 'Houston' with another city and you'll see a map of that city. As opposed to ComparisonEngines.com, you can enter TechCrunch (the Blog & Feed Smart Answers return the actual RSS feed and the most recent posts).

Expert/partnership Smart Answers are a little like fact/reference based answers, but extend past general encyclopedic knowledge to more specialized databases like the Internet Movie Database, Who2, All Recipes and others. As a Smart Answers team member explained, Ask might come up with a dream team type list of partners who have expertise or an active community in a certain area. The Smart Answers team would then talk to those organizations to figure out if their visions are aligned and then rely on that partner for its editorial expertise. Examples:
This last Smart Answer led me to Kentucky derby winner, US Open Tennis winner, 2002 World Cup winner, Emmy winner, etc. Just don't go too specific or too esoteric with your query or Ask will not trigger a Smart Answer.

In some cases, you can trigger a combination of Smart Answers. If you enter hurricane, you get both the fact/reference answer as well as a news Smart Answer covering the latest news headlines on hurricanes—but only if hurricanes are currently in the news.

Also, as I stated above, a Smart Answer can fit into multiple buckets. A search for Rolling Stones is Expert/Partnership (information provided by AllMusic, Tickets provided by Ticketmaster, Ringtones provided by Motricity) and part Vertical Search (links to Image search and Shopping search). Furthermore, a search for a special event like the 'San Francisco Earthquake Anniversary' might return many editorially driven links built into the Smart Answer.

During our call, Price must have introduced me to at least two-dozen Smart Answers. What I really liked about most of these is that Ask is trying to provide more than just basic information. In many cases, rather than just returning a single link to a Wikipedia entry, Smart Answers offer a treasure trove of information.

Here's a look at two innovative Smart Answers and why I like them:

Current weather event—example: 'Hurricane'
This Smart Answer provides a brief description followed by 15 informational links including the National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service, The Red Cross, FEMA, and a Hurricane Archive (provided by Weather Underground). As I already mentioned, Ask also integrates a news Smart Answer. In other words, Ask has aggregated the best of the web in terms of hurricane information. There is little reason to look beyond the Smart Answer.

Video games—example: 'Madden NFL 07'
I'm not even a gamer, but this Smart Answer made perfect sense. Ask provides a picture of the video game, a description and link to more detailed information, and links to the game trailer and price comparison listings. Then to top it off, Ask allows the user to specify the game platform (Xbox, PSP, DS, Xbox 360). This is a theme throughout many of Ask's Smart Answers, the ability to refine a search to get to the exact answer you want.

Another example is a search for 'Springfield weather.' There must be 60+ cities in the US named Springfield and Ask provides a drop down menu to find the correct one.

Price said that Smart Answers also provide an easy way for Ask to introduce or promote new features. "It's almost like a training tool," he said. "The package tracking Smart Answer is a good example. Not many people know they can type in a FedEx/UPS/DHL/USPS tracking number and get a result. However, many people type in 'package tracking' which launches the tracking Smart Answer. We look at how people are searching and deliver them quality results above the 10 blue links and above the paid listings."

What is the click through rate (CTR) of a Smart Answer and how important is it to be included in the Smart Answer?

Unfortunately, as expected, Ask wouldn't discuss CTR, but Ask spokesperson Patrick Crisp did say "if we weren't getting high satisfaction [CTR”, we wouldn't do it. We do know it's important and we have content partners coming to us on a regular basis who want to be a resource for Smart Answers."

How does Ask choose which topics and queries are candidates to become Smart Answers?

Price said, "We look at how people are searching—the keywords, the click through pattern—to figure out good Smart Answers. People out on the road suggest them all the time. Smart Answers is run by the product team. They make the necessary content deals to get things up. Plus an editorial team gets involved when necessary for special events like hurricanes or the San Francisco earthquake anniversary. There's an entire team of engineers who decide when a Smart Answer will be triggered and how it will be triggered—what shows up and how it shows up."

How does Ask choose partners for Smart Answers?

Price said that the Smart Answer partner criteria revolves around the Ask's analysis of the search need that exists— especially where traditional web search can be augmented to provide a more intuitive and deeper user experience. Once identified, the partner criteria is judged based on:
  • Content and source authority (accuracy of credible information)

  • Robustness of partner content, in terms of both depth and breadth, as well as availability of metadata that can be leveraged for processing/automation

  • Partner performance—Ask strives to create the best user experience possible by looking for a clean user interface, information organization as well as stability and uptime

  • True partnerships—Ask partners with sources that will work with the company to develop innovative search features and uniquely leverage their data/content when contextually relevant to a user's web search.
Unfortunately, Ask wouldn't provide a list of all the Smart Answers, but did say the most popular were in the categories of celebrities, images, entertainment and local searches.

Next in this series, I'll take a closer look at MSN's Instant Answers.

Brian Smith is a correspondent for Search Engine Watch and an independent analyst covering shopping and vertical search through ComparisonEngines.com.

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