Ask.com Changes Focus

Ask.com became the latest victim of the challenges confronting the search market. In the wake of announced layoffs, the number four search engine said that it would change its focus to concentrate on its core market. What that means exactly seems to be a topic of debate.

A story appearing on CNN reported that Ask plans to serve “a narrower market consisting of married women looking for help managing their lives.” Indeed, Ask’s CEO Jim Safka has been quoted in the press as saying “The company found that about 65 percent of its user base are women, with a high concentration of users in their late 30s in the U.S. Midwest and Southeast.” So does that mean the little search engine that could is now going to spend all its time answering questions about recipes, hobbies, children’s homework, entertainment, and health?

It certainly seems that way. Ask laid off only 40 people, but that number represents about eight percent of its workforce. Ask spokesman Nicholas Graham claims the eliminated positions cut across all divisions of the company. It wasn’t the people themselves who were superfluous so much as the positions, which were “not completely aligned with the new business strategy,” according to Graham. Ask plans to  hire people for new positions to “grow core teams” for Ask’s new direction.

Significantly, one of the people leaving the search engine in this round of layoffs is Gary Price, the company’s director of online resources and, among other things, the liaison to librarians. It’s impossible to take this move as anything other than a sign that Ask has decided to throw in the towel when it comes to the general search business. With less than a five percent share of the searches conducted, Ask seems unable to change people’s habits. Too many of us defaulted to using Google.

In this article, I hope to give you a historical overview of Ask, and discuss the forces that led to this decision. I’ll also cover some confusion in the press that persists at the time of writing, as well as some of the reactions to this move. Finally, I hope to talk about what the future of Ask looks like moving forward. So without further ado, let me proceed to write the article I hoped I’d never have to write.

Ask Jeeves entered the search arena in 1996, getting its start in Berkeley, California. Its founders were software developer David Warthen and venture capitalist Garrett Gruener. The company aimed to let users of its search engine ask questions in natural language rather than force them to use keywords. Instead of typing “pizza Fort Lauderdale” into the search box, a user could type “Where are the nearest pizza places?” and get a list of answers. Or they could ask “Is Jennifer Lopez married?” and get a simple answer.

At least, that’s the way it was supposed to work. Ask Jeeves often gave bizarre or off-target answers, because the technology wasn’t really up to the task. In truth, even today’s technology finds this challenging, since it is still difficult to get a computer to understand the meaning behind words. In September 2001 the company got a boost when it purchased Teoma Technologies; that firm’s algorithmic technology remains at the core of the search engine to this day. Things started to look up for Ask Jeeves — and then along came Google.

In all fairness, Google’s algorithm, and its new approach to search, blew everyone out of the water. The idea of a link to a site meaning a “vote” for that site’s relevance delivered more accurate search results, at least until some people learned how to game the system. Now, of course, search algorithms take dozens of factors into consideration when ranking a site’s relevance, but the “links equal votes” idea remains important.

Ask Jeeves was purchased by IAC/InterActiveCorp in July 2005, and relaunched as Ask.com — sans Jeeves, its beloved butler mascot — in February 2006. With the makeover, Ask hoped to be taken more seriously. Indeed, it deserved to be taken more seriously as a search engine. It improved its search results and its interface, making it easier to find many things and conduct certain kinds of searches. This innovation reached an apex of sorts in June 2007, when Ask introduced its Ask3D. The interface offered three panes of well-organized results and made it easy for users to adjust the focus of their search. I reviewed Ask3D, and like many others writing about the search engine industry, found a lot to praise.

Apparently, however, this wasn’t enough. Ask.com receives about 45 million visitors a month. That sounds respectable, until you consider how much traffic the other search engines receive. By itself, Google handles nearly 70 percent of the U.S. search market. Microsoft and Yahoo together don’t hold a candle to Google — so how can Ask hope to compete?

Reactions to Ask’s change of focus have been all over the map. Some have pointed to the futility of continuing the struggle against the Google juggernaut. “No matter what [Ask] did, it just wasn’t enough to get people to leave Google,” observed Chris Winfield, who runs 10e20, a search engine consulting firm. “This looks like they are raising the white flag.”

In light of this, others have pointed out that the change makes sense. “It’s a smart move,” said Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li. “I still think Ask has great technology, but it’s just really hard to fight against Google.” She also pointed out that married women — particularly mothers — control many household spending decisions. Thus, Ask’s new focus may give them better access to a highly desirable market for many advertisers. In short, switching away from a more general focus could be a very lucrative move for the search engine.

Kevin Newcomb, writing for Search Engine Watch, seconds this notion. “The strategy is a sound one, which many companies in all industries take: give the people what they want. Ask.com knows that its core users often search a certain way. It only makes sense to build out features and results that will satisfy those users. By improving search results for its core users, Ask.com is improving search results for all its users.”

Not everyone is so blasé about the change, however. Tara Calishain, writing for Researchbuzz, noted that “Had this shift in focus happened five years ago, I would not have much cared. Now, I care very much. Ask in the last couple of years has come up with some great offerings. The mapping service. The packed-with-data-but-still-usable search results. The terrific page preview with statistics. AskEraser…So many great things — I’m sad and sorry that Ask isn’t staying in the game.”

And Danny Sullivan seemed to speak for many when he wrote an obituary for Ask.com at Search Engine Land. “I hope you understand when I and the many others you’ve dismissed as the ‘digiterati’ aren’t counting you in the search game any longer. That’s because we know in our hearts you’re gone, even if you protest that it’s not so…Ask is out of the game, perhaps at exactly the right time when it should be ready to run onto the field if Microhoo happens.”

Navneet Kaushal interviewed Ask spokesman Nicholas Graham for Searchnewz. Graham stated that the rumors about Ask becoming oriented towards women were wrong, and that “There is no such thing as going women oriented…We have a very loyal user base…So we will be focusing more on our core audience.” So many news sources have reported on the specific change in focus, however, that it seems more likely Graham is backpedaling in the face of strong blogger and industry journalist reaction.

Even without the change in focus, one would be right to be concerned for Ask’s future. A glance at the larger search engine market reveals Microsoft struggling for market share, and willing to go as far as to attempt a hostile takeover of Yahoo to get a toehold. It’s worth noting that if the purchase goes through, Yahoo would be by far the largest acquisition Microsoft has ever made. Yahoo, of course, is experiencing problems of its own; it will be laying off something on the order of 1000 people. Even Google saw a weaker than expected performance this quarter, amid lessening demand for ads. How could Ask not be affected by the cold winds blowing in the marketplace?

But Ask faces more problems than its rivals. Its parent company is in turmoil. Barry Diller, head of IAC, plans to split the organization into five companies. John Malone and Liberty Media are trying to keep Diller from going through with these plans. As Paula J. Hane of Information Today wrote, “Given the chaos and distraction, it’s probably not surprising that Ask.com suffered what has to be viewed as mishandled and disorganized corporate communications around these changes.”

These changes have certainly affected Ask, with long-time executives leaving. Jim Safka stepped into the CEO position just this year, replacing Jim Lanzone. Also leaving around the same time as Lanzone was Michael Ferguson, senior user-experience analyst at Ask since the very beginning. Perhaps the exodus is something of a blessing in disguise, giving Ask a better chance to start its new direction with a clean slate.

Whether it will survive in the market with its new approach remains to be seen, however. Choosing to focus on its core market rather than trying to be all things to all people makes good economic sense. But with all of the excellent experiments Ask conducted, and the new products and ways to search it offered, I can’t help but shake my head. I will miss seeing the little search engine that could taking on the giants in the field.

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