Ask Jeeves: Asking Questions To Give You Answers

Ask Jeeves: Asking Questions To Give You Answers

From The Search Engine Report
November 4, 1998
(a longer version is available to site subscribers)

One of the biggest problems that search services face is the fact that people often search too broadly. For example, they enter something like "travel" and then expect relevant results.

Travel what? Travel agents? Places to book airline tickets? Travel guides? If a search engine could talk, it would ask these questions in order to understand exactly what a person is seeking.

Enter Ask Jeeves. The service does an impressive job of getting people to what they want by asking questions.

For example, imagine you want information about cars. Enter "cars" into the Ask Jeeves search box, and the service comes back with questions like:

+ Where can I find product reviews for cars?
+ Which models of cars are most frequently stolen?
+ Where can I locate information on the history of automobiles?

In front of each question is a Go icon. Choosing it takes users to a web site that answers the question.

The secret to the accuracy of Ask Jeeves is human intervention. About 30 people work full time creating the knowledge base of questions, which currently numbers about 7 million. They come up with ideas on their own, especially for popular topics, and they also watch what people are actually searching for.

"One of the really wonderful things about our site is a significant portion of what people input is indeed questions," said David Warthen, cofounder of Ask Jeeves and its chief technical officer. "We've got a very active feedback loop going."

Technology also plays an important role in helping Ask Jeeves provide relevant matches. Do a search for "white house," and notice the questions that come up. Among those that provide White House information is "Where can I find special reports on the news topic Monica Lewinsky?"

The words "white house" aren't mentioned in that question, yet many people might find it relevant for a search on "white house." How is it happening?

At Ask Jeeves, questions are associated with concepts, and concepts are in turn related to each other. So, questions about the White House may be linked to words like "monica lewinsky." Likewise, a search for "kenneth starr" might be associated with "monica lewinsky" and "bill clinton."

These relationships cause unexpected yet often relevant questions to appear. A further twist is that relationships between concepts can grow or diminish depending on what users select.

For example, if many people searching for "white house" choose the Monica Lewinsky question, then that relationship is strengthened. More questions relating to her and the current political scandal may then appear for "white house" searches in the future.

In contrast, a year from now people may be looking for other information when searching for "white house." The relationship with Monica Lewinsky would weaken (no pun intended), and fewer questions relating to her would be presented.

Human editors also review relationships. They can upgrade or downgrade links in response to changing search patterns.

To get the most of Ask Jeeves, be specific and phrase your search as a question. Don't be afraid to ask it exactly what you want -- you'll probably be surprised to find it has an answer.

Of course, Ask Jeeves doesn't know everything. As a back up, it has a metacrawler component. Top results from various search engines appear below Ask Jeeves's own information, or if Ask Jeeves has no information, then metacrawler results appear at the top of the page.

Another feature users may like about Ask Jeeves is its spell check component. If it suspects a mistake, it will say, "I think you may have misspelled something" above the search results, sometimes accompanied by alternative spellings.

A fun feature on the home page is a real time display of actual questions people are asking.

Ask Jeeves has been online since the spring of last year, but its new partnership with AltaVista (see article above) will expose many more people to the pleasure of having good answers. But those looking for more should also consider making Ask Jeeves a first stop.

Ask Jeeves