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Q&A With Ask.com's Gary Price

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Gary PriceGary Price, director of online information resources at Ask.com, is no stranger to most Search Engine Watch readers. He spent a year and a half as news editor of this site before he left to join Ask.com just over a year ago. His Resource Shelf and DocuTicker sites are indispensable tools for hardcore researchers and search technology junkies.

I had the chance to chat with Gary recently about his role at Ask.com, some of Ask.com's latest products, and the relationships between search engines and librarians.

Eric Enge: Can we start with a brief background of yourself?

Gary Price: I will be brief. I am a native of Chicago. I now live outside of D.C. in Silver Spring, (Maryland) and I have been here for ten years. Undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas, Masters of Library and Information Science from Wayne State University, in beautiful Detroit, Michigan. I worked for five years at George Washington University here in D.C., then for five years on my own as a consultant doing a bunch of different things and then in building ResourceShelf.

Then a year and a half with Danny Sullivan as news editor of Search Engine Watch, also during that time or prior to that about 6 years ago now I co-authored a book called The Invisible Web with Chris Sherman. And, last year on February 28, the day the butler retired, I started it with Ask.com as director of online information resources.

Eric Enge: So, you are the replacement for the butler.

Gary Price: It's been said that I am the new butler, but I am just a librarian and a member of the Ask.com team

Eric Enge: Excellent! Can you talk little bit about what your role is at Ask?

Gary Price: Sure, I have a different role just about every day. I would say three different roles. One is outreach, talking to media people like you, but even more specifically outreach to the K-12 education community, and to the library community. Both of those groups are large, and they're all searchers. And the people in the library community are more on the advanced searcher side. They are used to having various resources for various information needs.

K-12 people, whether it be the school librarian, or the teacher in the classroom, can often benefit (like most people) from a little bit of training. For many people, independent of their job, training can merge with marketing. Why? You can't train without knowing that the service exists in the first place? I separate training and education. Education is often much more involved, and in a semester format, and training may be anything from fifteen minutes to two or three hours.

But, when I do training, Ask.com, does not put any walls up in front of me to say, "you can't talk about this," or "you can't talk about that." If I like to music search from Yahoo, I am free to talk about that. I speak a lot about specialty databases that are not from Ask; and I am free to talk about that. So, I can talk about whatever I want, and I think that makes for a much better presentation. People know that they are getting my real opinion on things. And they know they are going to get a wide spectrum of things, and new resources and ideas to try. The reception has always been very positive.

At the same time I do talk about Ask, and from a lot of people I hear things like, "Thanks for coming and telling us about the product. It's not the same AskJeeves it was seven years ago." I would have been the first one to say that seven years ago, it was awful. Ask has been constantly making improvements and adding new services. It's not just a one-search-engine world, so to speak.

Eric Enge: But many people seem locked into their habits.

Gary Price: That's fine. Google is a great product, and I use Google plenty too. I like to take a look at everything, but I think that when it comes to information retrieval, options are very important. It's one thing if my mom is searching and she has become entrenched with Google. But, it is another thing for people who are in teaching, or teaching younger people information retrieval skills, as these skills are more important now than ever before.

Options are good and I think what Ask.com has been doing has been building a really powerful search tool that is easy to use. It does lot of things to differentiate.

Eric Enge: Do you end up to traveling a lot to do this outreach?

Gary Price: I do a lot of traveling, and I make a lot of phone calls. I do all of these in addition to running ResourceShelf and DocuTicker. Those sites started shortly before I left my job at George Washington University, and really have become a cottage industry. They have really developed into resources where I have several other people helping me. For example, regarding the business aspect, we have recently joined Federated Media, John Battelle's organization.

Eric Enge: So, you said earlier that there were three main jobs, and that the first one was outreach.

Gary Price: Outreach and the second and third are related: "in-reach," and product development at Ask. For example, coming up with ways to help utilize some of the library world's content, and just letting people know what libraries have to offer, and how can we work together with libraries.

Here is a interesting example: Go to Ask.com and type in [children's books”. You should see at the top a Smart Answer for the International Children's Digital Library. This is brand new. So here is the International Children's Digital Library, which is the specialty database with thousands of full textbooks for kids in different languages.

If you look at the Smart Answer, and click on search for books by category, you can see that they have developed this user interface that's colorful, and it's aimed at kids. You can search for books by color, age group, imaginary characters, that kind of thing. So, it's a way for us to take a common search like children's books, and turn people on to this specialty database. This particular one comes out of the University of Maryland.

Eric Enge: So, using the expertise you have in all these databases, Ask can provide superior Smart Answers.

Gary Price: Ask is going to be doing much more as we move on into the future. We also make sure that certain sites are crawled in a frequent manner, such as these quality specialty databases that deserve a little bit more attention than they normally get.

So, Ask.com is very happy with me just going out and talking to the general public about what libraries have to offer, period. One part of my role is simply to be a spokesperson for the library community, who also works for a large search engine. They are also fine with me going out and talking to media people like you about what libraries have to offer in general, because most people frequently have no idea what's available to them for free from the libraries 24x7 without physically having to visit the library. Ask is very happy with me going out and doing promotion for the library community, and the library community is very happy with Ask for allowing me to do that.

Eric Enge: A lot of business is done these days by simply figuring out how to help each other out.

Gary Price: Let me show you real quickly what the San Francisco Public Library offers. Go to sfpl.org. When you are on the homepage, you will see a search box on the left side of the page, and below that there is a link to "articles and databases."

Click on that. You can see here a list of all these databases, many of them full-text. For example InfoTrac OneFile, the first database listed, has over sixty million articles in it, many of them full-text and full-image. The fourth one down, New York Times Historical, has every article ever published in the New York Times back to 1851. Other great resources include the Encyclopedia Britannica, Fact and File Search from First Search, Grove Music Online, the quintessential music encyclopedia, and much, much more. All this is free. All you need is a library card.

Another resource to look at is www.Asknow.org. This is a place where you can ask questions directly of a librarian. It is part of a larger library organization called Question Point from OCLC.

Eric Enge: There is an enormous amount of stuff here. So, what happens if you are looking to access some of this information for business purposes?

Gary Price: Companies like Gale, EBSCO, and ProQuest have business services available, and you can subscribe to the particular database. The JJ Hill Library in St. Paul, Minnesota, also offers fee-based services for the small business.

Eric Enge: So why did you join Ask?

Gary Price: I really like the leadership, I think Jim Lanzone is really on the ball, and I think he has a good vision for the future. Plus he's a great person and a fellow pop culture and music trivia fan. I also like my colleagues, and I really believe that lot of the things that they are doing are great. For example, most people aren't going to be advanced searchers. And, I think some of the tools that Ask is building offer a lot of what I would like to have in a search engine, if I were not an advanced searcher.

Eric Enge: An example of this is the breadth of Smart Answers that you offer. Can you tell me a bit about your Maps product?

Gary Price: Sure. Let's start by going to maps.ask.com. Here you will see the map of the United States, and there is also a little bit of Canadian aerial imagery. So let's type in a specific location.

Eric Enge: How about: 221 Boston Post Road East, Marlborough, MA (link)?

Gary Price: OK, great. So now click on another location nearby. See how the location updates with the exact address? That's something we offer that nobody else offers.

Now find another place on the map, and right click on it, and you should see where it says add location, and now you get two things. We dynamically provide driving and walking directions. We are one of the few, if only, to provide both driving and walking directions. And while it might not make a difference in Marlborough, for sure in Central Boston the way you walk and the way you drive is completely different.

Gary Price: What's great about this is that there is no typing necessary. In addition, you can have up to ten locations in the itinerary that you build this way.

Eric Enge: Very cool. Can you tell me about AskCity?

Gary Price: The first thing you see when you go there is once again the map. It has local business listings from a variety of sources, but it also includes events. For example, the Bruins are playing tonight, and it also includes movies, and there is some ecommerce integrated. For example with one click you can buy tickets from Ticketmaster and other ticketing services.

Let's look at another example – let's type in "pizza" in the business box, and "02134" in the location box. You should now have a bunch of restaurants there, in and around the area. You can see that there is search-by-cuisine, so you could limit your search down to pizza.

You can see that the zip code area is actually outlined. Then you can search by Neighborhood, so we will move our search to the second choice which is Brighton, and there again then you have everything listed. It's really easy to move around, or zoom in and zoom out, without having to type much.

If you go Spanky's Pizza, you can see a review from CitySearch. We incorporate reviews from City Search, Yelp, and lots of open Web review sites.

And at the bottom, you can add locations with that yellow pointer, you can put circles on that map, and then you can take a snapshot of the map and save it, print it, do whatever you like with it.

Eric Enge: And what about Ask's mobile service?

Gary Price: That's another great service that you can see at m.ask.com. This is one of my areas of personal interest, mobile and wirelessly accessed information. So, m.ask.com or mobile.ask.com is our wireless/mobile version of several of our services.

You should be able to see the content on a regular Web browser and pretend that you are looking at it on a mobile device. Notice that there is no search box there. We found through lot of user testing that people will automatically see our search box and start typing. If you have a Qwerty keyboard, typing isn't much of a challenge. But a lot of people don't have this on their mobile device. So typing in "San Francisco weather" is a lot of clicks.

To address this, we have taken some of our most frequently used services, and made them much more accessible. To see what I mean, hit a 6 on your keyboard, go down to weather and type SF, or a zip code, and you get the weather right there. This implementation really helps save people time.

Eric Enge: I like the way Ask has built tools like Bloglines into your interface. Can you talk about that a bit?

Gary Price: Sure, let's go back to the regular www.ask.com interface. On the right side of the page, you see a box which has a variety of search tools. You can reorganize them anyway you like either by clicking on them or being high-tech and using the AJAX and dragging and dropping. For now, click on the Blogs and Feeds link you see there, and then let's type in Boston to test a query.

Now you can really see the mindset of people like Jim Lanzone and others at Ask. See how there is a subscribe button right below the results? With one click, you can subscribe to the feed for the blog we returned in the search results. But notice that you can subscribe with Bloglines, our product, or Google Reader, or My Yahoo and other services. We make it very easy to subscribe to the feed from our results page, even with our competitors' services. The same thing is true with the "Post To" function. You can post from here to places like Digg, del.icio.us, Reddit and others.

Eric Enge: You have also done some neat things with integrating image search.

Gary Price: Yes, to see that let's type in [pictures of Golden Gate Bridge”. When someone types this in, we drop into our image database and bring them the first four results.

Similarly, if you type in [video of Boston Bruins” or [video of Boston Celtics”, you should get some video that relates to the team with the AskX prototype

Eric Enge: Can you talk a little bit about the flexibility offered by your Smart Answers?

Gary Price: Sure to do that, let's try [Beatles” as a query. This is just a beautiful example of a perfect results page. You see the Smart Answer at the top, with direct links from who2.com, which is a biographic database based in Boston that provides additional information. There is the commerce to buy Beatle's ringtones, direct links to one of my favorite databases on music.com, and then a direct link to the Wikipedia entry for the Beatles.

Below it you see some nice disambiguation, you typed the Beatles, but actually you meant Ringo. So, you can pull down to that box, pull down to Ringo, John, George, or Paul, and then go directly to the Smart Answer for them. And then, on the right side of the page, there are our classic features for narrowing or expanding your search.

For example, did you mean Beatlemania, or Woodstock, or other terms from the period? In some cases, we pull out related names, and if you click "more" you will see other rock groups, such as Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, that type of thing.

Eric Enge: Yes, very nice functionality.

Gary Price: Yes, it has a librarian-ready reference feel to it.

Eric Enge: So let's try a weather-related search, and see how that does.

Gary Price: Great idea. As you can see, there is a special weather statement for your area. Once again we offer disambiguation. For example, put in "Springfield", but don't put in a state. We have zip code for Springfield MA, the most populated one I believe, but there is more than one zip code for Springfield MA, and then there is a direct link to the USPS database. So if you meant Springfield, Illinois, just use the pull-down and pick it.

Let me show you another good example, type in [dog”. See how you get a picture of the golden retriever, and you also get a broken-down taxonomy? You get key facts about dogs, but say you started with dogs, but you are actually interested in Alaskan Huskies. You can easily find this by using the drop down.

These types of things make it easier for the non-advanced searcher, and even for the advanced searcher to save them time.

Eric Enge: Right. That's excellent, so do you have anything you can say, Gary, about what Ask is doing to build its market share?

Gary Price: Well obviously, you have seen our TV commercials. Another key thing is our outreach program, to have somebody walk people through Ask and show them some of the things that make it different and why they would want to use it.

That's the bigger challenge and something that I am part of. People are creatures of habit, and getting them to just to take a look at something else is a challenge. Once you do that, you need to show them quickly why they would want to come back and use this product again, and again, and again.

And my point as a librarian is that there is no one perfect database or reference tool. What you need is the right tool at the right time, and that's what information retrieval is all about. There is not one all-encompassing database, or search engine, that's going to be right all the time or useful all the time.

Eric Enge: You have emphasized a few times that one of the big issues in search is disambiguation. There are really two problems: (1) the user usually doesn't do a good job of defining what they want, and: (2) even if they tell you, the Web sites you are crawling don't always do a good job of telling you what queries they might satisfy.

Gary Price: That's why I am very happy that Jim allows me to go out the way he does. To tell people that your local public library is offering these services, and you can get access to this 24x7 whether it be from your home, your office, or an Internet café in Paris. I really appreciate the real well rounded thought process that is going into bringing me onboard, and into building the Ask product going forward.

The Children's Digital Library we talked about earlier is a great example of what we can do to highlight key databases, and I think you will see more of that in the future. Another great example is the way we integrate wedding registry information. To see this, type in [wedding registry” in a regular Ask search box.

What you will get is a direct link to a meta-search engine from gift.com, another IAC property, that federates the search of six major national wedding registries into one place. See how it puts everything immediately at your fingertips?

For example, type in [Joe Smith”. You see the wedding registry databases for six or seven major national stores, such as Crate & Barrel, and Williams-Sonoma. That's something that's practical and useful. It's time-saving, and everybody probably will have a use for something like this at some point.

Eric Enge: I have definitely enjoyed the call and the tour of Ask. Thanks so much.

Gary Price: I am here anytime. I enjoyed it too.

Eric Enge is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric is also co-founder of Moving Traffic Inc., the publisher of City Town Info and Custom Search Guide.

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