Is Ask the Next Big Search Engine?

Can you rule out the fourth horse in a race? One would think so, but this race isn’t over yet, and Ask may yet prove that it can go the distance. Keep reading to find out why this now butler-free search engine may be more than a one-trick pony.

The Prequel

First of all, it is no longer Ask Jeeves, it is now Ask (and has being for quite some time). But frankly, why do I think Ask is the next big search engine? Why not Google?  And frankly, who cares about Ask.com? Believe it or not, a large percentage of search engine users do care, and their number could increase, as Ask.com quietly proves itself to just possibly be the best search engine around.

The Verdict

One of the most maligned search engines is the British based http://www.ask.com/; it have been accused of sins ranging from not taking paid search listings (pay per click) seriously, to making search uncomfortable for browsers. Also, in contradiction to some of this, it has been accused of having too many paid listings on top of its site’s listings.

Why would I now ask if a search engine that took literally forever to get into the paid listing market, and whose branding is confused in the mind of the audience (is it askjeeves.com, ask.com, teoma.com or askgive.com), will be the next big search engine? I mean, in terms of market share, Ask is at best fourth, behind Google, Yahoo and MSN. It is losing its top staff to the competition (Steve Berkowitz to Microsoft, for example). Ask is, to put it simply, not that important right now. But it has several things going for it that could turn it into a top contender for a large market share of the search engine industry.

Ask was one of the most highly rated search engines in the late nineties. Its branding was great, and it consistently provided relevant results in an ergonomic (easy to view) format. But its complacency allowed a rash of competition to thrive, and finally Google ran away with the market.

Now it is repositioning itself to focus and bring its brand out. The strongest point in its favor currently may be the fickleness of the people who use search engines; in their efforts to get the results they want, web surfers use all kinds of search engines, and are also very quick to discard a search engine if they discover that the results presented to them are irrelevant. I have found myself using Excite, Lycos, Ask, Google, MSN and Yahoo at the same time while searching for particular or hard to find material/information. This same fickleness led to Ask losing its audience, as better branded and more effective search engines came out, but if it consistently started giving results which can be found nowhere else, and showed itself to be a unique and user friendly search engine, Ask could become bigger than it ever was.

Unique Listings?

If there is anything Ask is currently guilty of, it is that it doesn’t give results which are unique to its own search engine. The listings on its SERPs are similar to pages found on other top search engines, and are becoming vaguely similar to results found on Yahoo, while also listing content found on Google. Is this good or is this bad?

Many people searching are not really concerned about the uniqueness of the listings; they want effective SERPs, and a listing that combines the best of Yahoo and Google can be called “the best of both worlds.” Combining its Teoma search engine technology, which focuses on social search, with its smart search technology and its Expertrank algorithm, Ask is currently the best site for experts. If you are a researcher or a graduate student, or writing a scientific paper, and you want to search online, Ask is the search engine of choice.

Think about it. Google lists pages based on its Pagerank algorithm; it therefore gives you the page with the most related site links as the first listing, which will probably be a business site. Ask actually gives you the site which other sites that offer the same content link to, so it gives content rich and highly relevant  sites as its first set of listings, instead of highly optimized but otherwise content empty business sites. Thus Ask is unique in that its SERPs are differently arranged (and force website owners to optimize for it differently).

Ask also offers unique listings on its Blog and Feed search, which is its tool for search enthusiasts to explore the blogosphere and not fear being bombarded with low quality blogs.

Another biggie on Ask’s list of sins is bad branding. Until recently, when it actively stopped branding as askjeeves.com, it was the main focus of their branding efforts. But Askjeeves is hard to spell and confusing to perceive. Digging into search engine databases, you will notice that searches for Askjeeves give 21 wrong spellings for every fifty spellings. And people seem not to have caught on that Askjeeves is now Ask.com. According to Search Engine Optimization 101, the most common misspellings for “Jeeves” are: jeves, geeves, jeevs, jeaves, jeeve, jevves, jeebs, geves, jeevees, reeves, jeevers, jives, jevess, jevs, and jeebes.

Over eight years of branding as Askjeeves is still working against the search engine. It will take some serious publicity if Ask want to change its name perception in the minds of search engine users. And it is in the place of publicity that Ask faces their final challenge.

Poor Publicity

Perhaps it is because Ask is based in Britain, or maybe Jeeves is too discreet, but Ask does not attract or create the kind of publicity one hears about concerning the other search engines. The publicity stunts that Google does, through its constant reinvention of its homepage to reflect current themes (which Yahoo has begun to imitate) and Google’s April Fool stunts, and of course its constantly-in-beta product releases, guarantee Google is constantly in the news. If Ask cannot do this, it will definitely spell against the company since publicity is essential on the Internet. Cyberbuzz is the one way to get billions of dollars worth of free advertising. Ask doesn’t have enough of it right now.

Riding the Future

Ask is dually positioned with Yahoo to ride the new wave of search, social search. Yahoo is betting its future on personalized search and  social search. Ask entered the social search scene slightly earlier than Yahoo, via its purchase of Teoma in 2001. Teoma (and therefore Ask) works by indexing online communities and “expert sites” and by ranking sites based on the number of similar content pages that link to that site. This is based on “Subject Specific Popularity” technology that seeks to return the most relevant results to the search engine user. Teoma allows the user to refine search listings to the most informative and authoritative sites on the topic for which he is searching.

Extreme Customer Focusing

Ask also has the advantage of being user focused. Their focus is not their monetary  bottom line, but rather the customer’s search experience (this is unlike Yahoo, who seems intent on bankrupting website users via its PFI/PPC program). This point is reflected in Ask’s  in depth crawling of all submitted sites. Websites can submit multiple URLs to Ask for free through www.ask.ineedhits.com. This is separate from Ask’s paid database listing. This allows a large number of websites to enable Ask to search and index their sites.

Combine this with the ability of Ask to understand search queries delivered in phrase or question form, and this makes Ask the most user friendly search engine around. Its publicized aim is to understand the user’s query perfectly, no matter how it is phrased. Ask also has a spell check function on its search bar, so as to correct mistyped search queries. Its dedication to improving the search experience (apart from search results) and its use of new technologies to improve its search results makes it a world class site with a world class search experience.

Ask offers a plethora of products, including maps and directions to search for locations and businesses in a specific area; a dictionary; Ask for kids; a web based encyclopedia (the only one of its kind for a search engine); Image search; Web search; and Blog and Feed search, a big challenger for Technorati’s blog search.

Blog and Feed Search

 Ask entered into the world of blogs when it bought Bloglines. Now with its Blog and Feed search, it seems set to take out Technorati’s tenacious grip on blog search, a grip that Google has not being able to dislodge much and which ought to be wide open (considering how bad Technorati’s branding is).

Ask is offering this new product as a combination of blog search and its Teoma Expert rank technology, which allows blog searchers to find timely content. The basic blog search on Technorati and Google (which still does not have blog search on its home page) enables you to view posts and news on blogs, and sorts most recent posts first by default. Ask’s Blog & Feed search, on the other hand, lists results by relevance, increasing the interactivity of the user by allowing them to re-sort by date or popularity.

Add to this the fact that Ask offers a beautiful pop up experience, which shows you the entire post without you clicking on the link. You just need to click the binocular icon and zoom. 

Ask is pitching their new blog search as the next step in blog and feed searching worldwide, with top class quality and 1.5 billion blog articles indexed in total. Only blogs and feeds subscribed to by Bloglines users are indexed; this is all in line with Ask’s theme of ”collective human intelligence.”

Ask’s Blog and Feed search also includes the following features and tools: 

  • Easily export search results to popular web services.
  • Subscribe to feeds not only in Bloglines but also other services, including Google Reader, NewsGator or Yahoo.
  • Post or clip a search result directly to services like Bloglines, Digg, Del.icio.us, and Newsvine.
  • Subscribe to a search and find out within minutes when new content appears on the blogosphere, matching your topic.
  • View related feeds when searching for posts right on the search results page.
  • Use Advanced Search to hone queries with a variety of options, including the ability to select one or more of the supported languages.

My Thoughts

I find that I like Ask a lot. In fact I am considering bumping Altavista off my list of favorite sites and adding Ask, since it consistently gives me relevant results. Also, as I discovered, a lot of experts and other users use them when searching for content and businesses. Write this unique search engine off at your own peril.

Google+ Comments

Google+ Comments