What Should Ask.com Do?

An interesting discussion has begun on several blogs this week considering what Ask.com should do to be successful. It focuses on ways that Ask.com could compete with Google, both in search and advertising. While there are many things that Ask.com is doing right, it's hard not to wonder if it will be enough.

It's interesting that so much discussion is being devoted to Ask.com all at once. Is it a wish to back the underdog, or a dissatisfaction with Google, and a lack of faith in runners-up Yahoo and Microsoft? Let's start with a run-down of the conversation to this point, and see if we can come up with any answers to help everyone's favorite underachiever.

We begin with Allen Stern at Center Networks, who writes Ask.com goes "all in"... and my strategy suggestions to help them fight the beast. He outlines five areas of focus he'd suggest if he were asked:

  1. Get site publishers to integrate Ask.com, with cash incentives, if necessary.

  2. Focus on Google's potential data and privacy issues.

  3. Look for categories to own, like Ask Kids.

  4. Work with bloggers to educate them and create an 'Ask.com feeling."

  5. Arrange local demos of Ask.com

Over at Read/Write Web, Josh Catone weighs in with The Future of Ask.com: Search? How About Advertising. He shares his opinions on Stern's suggestions, and adds another area of focus for Ask: advertising.

This, I think, is an area that Google dominates which is currently ripe for competition (more so than search). Google's service isn't great (the most glaring check against them, in the eyes of publishers, is their lack of transparency -- they don't disclose how much of the ad revenue is being shared), and publishers are always willing to try out a new service to see if it makes them more money.

Catone also outlines several elements of an advertising program that Ask should focus on to match Google, including management tools for advertisers and publishers, contextual ad matching technology. He also names a few areas where Ask could potentially beat Google, including transparency with publisher earnings, a solution to stop click fraud, and the creation of "hybrid" text/image ads.

Over at Search Engine Guide, Jennifer Laycock asks the question, On Fire, or Going Down in Flames?, citing the latest Nielsen//NetRatings search share data that shows Ask.com losing ground after a year of slow but steady growth.

"It's a frustrating journey to watch as it seems that every time they do something great, they follow up with something that makes me cringe," writes Laycock.

At the Bruce Clay blog, Lisa Barone shares her hopes for Ask.com's success, and points to a major flaw amidst minor successes:

Let's be fair. Everyone knows that Ask.com's tools are better than Google's, Yahoo's, or Microsoft's. AskCity is awesome, their blog search kills, and the Smart Answer and query refinement tools Ask has been using for years are just now starting to be adopted by the other engines. When it comes to advanced search tools, Ask.com is in a league of their own. This is great, but their traditional search results are still lacking. Without a strong SERP, Ask.com will never become more than a specialty engine. You'll use it when you need to find a local furniture store, but you won't trust it for everyday searching.

There are many things that Ask.com is doing right. It's clearly committed to developing both its search and advertising products, and has committed $100 million to a TV ad campaign to try to spur 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 some strides in local search with their AskCity product. They're also doing some interesting things with Ask Mobile and the AskX interface.

Ask.com is also in the midst of combining its Teoma and Direct Hit algorithms, along with other technologies it has developed, into the upcoming Edison algorithm, which will roll out over the course of 2007.

And Ask.com is reaching out to certain niches, notably librarians. Gary Price, Ask's director of online information resources, told SEW recently that his primary roles are outreach to media, outreach to librarians, and outreach internally to other IAC properties.

As for advertising, Ask.com has been making moves there already. It expanded its Ask Sponsored Listings product last fall, and is in the process of launching a contextual ad network across its own IAC-owned sites and third-party sites.

But as Andy Beal points out on his Marketing Pilgrim blog, whatever Ask does may not be enough, if it doesn't change its attitude: "The problem is that Ask still seems to want to compete with Google and Yahoo. ... Edgy ads aren't going to cut it, you need to find a niche and fill it."

Will these moves be enough to give Ask.com a fighting chance? What's Ask.com doing right? What are they doing wrong? What are they missing? Share your thoughts in the SEW forums.