Ask Looks at Search in 3D

You won’t need 3D glasses to appreciate Ask’s new approach to search. Designed to be helpful to both casual searchers and power users, the new interface gives you less ads and more information. This article takes a closer look to see whether it’s really an improvement on what has become the norm.

We all know what the traditional approach to search is these days: search box in the center, ten blue links with some bits of information about each site (usually textual) and sponsored links at the top and along the right column. The major search engines have taken some stabs at personalization, and Google’s Universal Search is trying to bring more and different kinds of content into a standard search, mixing in images, news, and video rather than forcing you to click the appropriate links to gear your search in those directions.

Those moves look like baby steps when compared with what Ask is doing. First unveiled as the experimental Ask X with no fanfare in December 2006, Ask’s new interface gives users a three-pane layout to play with (hence the “3D”). The left pane is devoted to the search box; it’s where users can modify their query and receive suggestions to narrow, expand, and possibly search for related items. The middle pane contains what would be considered traditional results. So far, it doesn’t sound that revolutionary, right?

It’s the right pane that’s likely to make the biggest difference. As I noted above, most search engines use that pane for ads. Ask decided that the real estate is too valuable to its users to simply monetize with advertising. Instead, it pulls in content from other specialty search engines and verticals. For instance, if you do a search on a music group, you might find links to photos, music, dates and locations for the band’s upcoming performances, and so forth.

In short, Ask is taking the oldest saw on the Internet – “content is king” – and applying it to search. At least in theory, users will see more results, of more different types, than they would with the other search engines, all at the same time. Presumably, the theory is that such an assortment of results is more likely to turn up what a searcher needs. Let’s take a look to see whether more really is better.

I hadn’t visited Ask in a while, so before searching I reacquainted myself with some of its options. I was delighted to discover the new skins option. You wouldn’t think having a different background could matter, but somehow it does make a difference, at least in frame of mind. Here’s the default home page (cropped and shrunk to fit), with the arrow clicked so you can see all the specialized search options:

If you’ve read other reviews, you’ve probably seen the polka dot skin. Here’s a different one:

There are plenty more, and eventually users will be able to upload their own custom skins. Of course, search is a lot more than just a pretty face, so naturally I was eager to get started. I thought I’d start off with one of my favorite bands, which will no doubt show my age: the Beach Boys. I noticed something very interesting before I even hit the search button:

Having search suggestions listed like that is a very nice touch; it’s even nicer that there’s a very obvious link that lets you disable that feature if it gets annoying. Google doesn’t make any suggestions until after you click. I particularly like this assortment of suggestions, since it does a good job of covering the various reasons someone who had at least briefly encountered the Beach Boys might be searching for them online.

But never mind the suggestions (despite how tempting some of them looked); I wanted to go ahead with my search as it was. I don’t mean to sound like a PR person, but the results were jaw-dropping. I’m going to apologize in advance for this cropped and resized image, because I already know there is no way it will do justice to the actual results.

This is Ask’s three-panel interface in action. As I mentioned in the previous section, the first panel shows you ways you can adjust your search, the second panel shows you what might be considered traditional results, while the third panel shows you items to supplement those results: images, music tracks, etc. I’ll be taking a closer look at these panels in the next section.

Here’s the first panel from my search. I couldn’t resist clicking on one of the “more” links to show you once again how Ask presents additional information:


 

As you can see, you can get much more focused, or step back, or take a look at related bands or band members even if you don’t click to see more. What appears in that left panel will depend entirely on your search. You won’t always get related names, for instance; I did when I tried out a search for “juggling,” but not for “bobbin lace,” which makes perfect sense.

Now let’s take a look at the middle panel. The results look traditional, but I’m going to hover over the binoculars so you can see what they do:

Ask has beefed up its binoculars. You get a preview of the site, an idea of how large it is, how long it would take to download with a 56k setup, and whether you need any plug-ins to see the site properly (as noted, the site I hovered over uses Flash). Now you’ll also see a little green plus sign inside what looks like a tiny document to the right of this entry. Clicking on that saves the link to My Stuff, Ask’s version of a personalized search history (you need an account for that of course).

As it turns out, I didn’t see any ads in this section for this search. This doesn’t mean that Ask is going completely without ads! They do show up in other searches. For example, when I did a search on Tiger Woods, three sponsored listings showed below the first link; after that, there was a larger grouping of sponsored listings after the tenth link. It’s worth noting, however, that you still get 10 organic results (or however many you’ve set Ask to show you) regardless of the number of ads. Sponsored links are visibly different, showing up in a light yellow box. Here’s a set from the Tiger Woods results:

One reviewer accused Ask of using the lightest possible shade of yellow without being white for the background of sponsored links, but it really didn’t seem that difficult to me to differentiate it from the white background.

Here is the third panel, or what I could fit into one image. I could scroll down for more options:

The third panel lays out images, music tracks, an entry from Wikipedia, and video (below the screen shot area). This time when you click on the “more” link it takes you to the database from which the information was drawn. Of course, what turns up in the third panel will also depend on your search query; for “bobbin lace” I didn’t get any videos, but I did get blog entries. And for at least one search – search engine optimization – that third panel didn’t even appear at all.

Ask still needs to work on its results. As other reviewers have noted, Google does just as good a job in many cases, and a much better one for some searches. For the Beach Boys results, for example, Google did about as good a job when compared with the middle section of Ask’s results. But I must admit that I appreciated seeing the ways I could adjust my search close at hand without having to scroll down for them (as I did for Google), and seeing those other resources on the right side. I could get used to a search engine that gives me that kind of help and content.

John Battelle gave a good perspective in his Searchblog as to why Ask is taking such a big risk with a new approach: “Let me summarize it for you this way: This is Ask, a perennial 4th place player in an increasingly one player market, doing what only a 4th place player can do: Throwing caution to the wind and betting on a new interface, one that abandons the ‘ten blue links’ approach that has dominated search for so long.” In short, Ask needs to do something desperate if it hopes to climb out of its current obscurity.

Ask currently holds only five percent of the search market. It has been trying to build on that share with a multimillion dollar advertising campaign to raise awareness of its brand. Barry Diller, CEO of IAC, the company that owns Ask, has publicly state his goal of raising the search engine’s share of the market to 10 percent.

Will the new interface change that? Well, when Ask tested it out on five percent of its traffic, it had an interesting, counter intuitive effect: people actually spent less time inputting queries. As Jim Lanzone, CEO of Ask, explains, with the new interface, “They don’t need to iterate as much. They don’t have to hunt and peck.”

That’s great from a search tool perspective, but it’s not helpful from a marketing perspective – unless users completely change their view of Ask. Currently, most people see it as a sort of “back up” search engine, to be used when Google or one of the other big ones doesn’t deliver. If searchers started seeing Ask as a possible primary search engine, that could turn Ask’s market share around – and turn it into the little search engine that could.

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