Ask.com: is there Room for Another Major Search Engine?

AskJeeves is still around, only now it has a new name: Ask.com. It also has a new owner as of last summer and a cleaner interface. Can it survive without its venerable butler? And is it serious about taking on Google?

It’s not often that a company retires a mascot that has served them faithfully for a decade. But that’s what happened last month when search engine AskJeeves changed its name to Ask.com. After surviving a diet, a wardrobe malfunction, being turned into a robot, an invasion from Google’s Matt Cutts which the faithful butler captured on film, and finally being frozen in carbonite, Jeeves has richly earned his retirement. But where will Ask.com go without him now? And is the search engine up for the challenges it faces today?

To say that Ask.com faces some serious challenges in the competitive search engine market is an understatement. According to data from online traffic research firm Nielsen/Netratings, Ask.com receives just a little more than two percent of the search queries in the United States. Other companies are kinder in their compilations. ComScore Media Matrix’s figures for December gave Ask.com a 6.3 percent share of the U.S. search engine market, up from 5.3 percent a year ago.

Compared with its competitors, that’s trivial. ComScore’s numbers give the lead to Google with 40 percent, followed by Yahoo! at 29.5 percent, and MSN at 24.3 percent. Even AOL, at 8.5 percent, is beating Ask.com. This leaves Ask.com a distant fifth. No wonder they retired the butler.

The changes to Ask.com go far beyond the cosmetic, however. Visitors to the site won’t see the familiar figure of Jeeves, but they will see a much cleaner interface that features a “toolbox.” Jim Lanzone, general manager of Ask.com U.S., describes it as “like having a speed dial to the best search has to offer.” It might take a bit more than a speed dial to save Ask.com, though, especially given the hurdles the company must face if it hopes to become more relevant in users’ minds.

One of Ask.com’s major hurdles is fairly obvious to anyone who used the search engine in 2000 or so and then abandoned it. At that time it was supposed to offer an alternative to the other search engines, in which users entered keywords. Rather than putting in keywords, searchers were supposed to be able to use natural language. Put in the question “What is the capital of Nigeria?” for instance, and AskJeeves was supposed to be able to give you the answer.

Well, Google and MSN can do that now, but back in 2000 no search engine could really handle natural language questions well. And sadly, that included AskJeeves. The faithful butler was far more likely to serve you less relevant results than the other search engines, and the advantage of being able to use plain English wasn’t big enough to offset this problem. This is especially true when you consider that searching by keywords isn’t that much less “natural” than searching by asking a question. Those of us old enough to remember card catalogues did it all the time.

Six years later, many of us still remember AskJeeves as a rather unhelpful butler, which we stopped using in favor of Google or Yahoo! because they delivered the results we needed. By retiring the butler, owner Barry Diller hopes to retire that image. But getting rid of a bad reputation that the search engine no longer deserves is only part of the battle.

Ask.com also needs to fight ingrained habits. Many web surfers no longer search for something online; they “google” it. While some SEOs will optimize for Yahoo! or MSN, the most active forums always seem to be the ones discussing Google optimization. If we remember the old saw that one calendar year equals four Internet years, Ask.com is effectively asking web surfers to kick a twenty-plus-year-old habit. We all know how hard that is to do when we want to; how hard a sell do you think this will be when there doesn’t appear to be a compelling reason to switch?

So, in the highly competitive field of search engines, Ask.com faces two handicaps: a bad reputation it currently doesn’t deserve, and web surfers’ ingrained habits. It is also fighting a related problem: publicity. Diller sounds envious when he observes that “Google hasn’t spent a nickel on marketing. Google sneezes and it’s on the front page of every paper in the world.” But it is (or should be) a truism in public relations: if you want to be talked about, you need to give people something worth talking about. Is Ask.com’s latest overhaul worth talking about?

Ask.com’s engineers think its search tools are as good as Google’s, maybe even better. The company started working in earnest on the changes last fall, not long after Barry Diller acquired AskJeeves for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion last summer. One goal apparently was to give users easier access to those tools the search engine had constructed over the past three or four years. So where did Ask.com put them? Where else but in a “toolbox”?

Visitors to the Ask.com website see an interface as clean as Google’s with one small exception. Over on the right hand side is a rectangle that contains about ten different tools, labeled Images, News, Maps & Directories, Weather, Encyclopedia, and so on. Clicking on any tool changes the look of the interface, accessing the tool. For example, a click on Images takes you to Ask.com’s image search interface, which looks the same as the normal search box, but with examples of what you might get (thumbnails that are labeled). A search for Apple headquarters yields a variety of images; clicking on one leads to a split screen, with the image in the upper third and the page the image was taken from in the lower two thirds.

The maps & directories tool, to judge from Ask.com’s press release, is the company’s pride and joy. I hate to say it, but it’s very sluggish in comparison to Google and Mapquest; I found myself waiting tens of seconds every time the images had to be redrawn. And unlike Mapquest, it couldn’t tell me clearly that I would have to make a U-turn at one point in my directions.

The fact that it could give walking directions does differentiate it from other directional guides, and might be useful for people living in densely populated cities. It was also nice that I could drag and drop the location pins to a different address, and Ask.com automatically recalculated the directions. I don’t know whether any of the major search engines offer this feature yet. Additionally, if I wanted to, I could add a location, and Ask.com would have added the directions. This was handy when planning a route from work to my doctor’s office and back home.

Ask.com offered three views: street, mixed, and aerial. These looked about as you would have expected them. I liked the mixed view, which showed town names overlaid on the aerial view. The company makes much of their “Play directions” button, but I had trouble finding it (it isn’t labeled). And once I did find it, I wasn’t that impressed.

While I didn’t care for some of the tools, others were quite nice. Using the “local” tool, I could put in the name of a type of business and a zip code—for example, my local zip code and “movie theater” (without quotes). I got a list of the movie theaters in my area, with their addresses, sorted by relevance (which wasn’t exactly distance, but close enough).

When I clicked on a theater, I got a list of the movies they were currently showing, along with their times. That’s actually better for my usual purposes than Google Local, which delivers a list and a map, and, when clicking on one of the theaters, only highlights the pushpin and offers to give you directions.

I admit that I haven’t had the time to try out all of Ask.com’s search tools. I have a feeling that I will be pleasantly surprised when I do. But here’s the catch: if I weren’t doing this for my job, I might never have stumbled across the changes that Ask.com has made. How many people will hear about Ask.com’s new look and shrug? How many will figure that the changes are only skin deep and not bother to try them out?

The only way that there can be room for another major search engine in the market is if it is different enough, and good enough, to all but compel people to use it. That’s how Google got its much-coveted position. Ask.com has been hanging on for a long time; it is almost as old as Yahoo!, as a matter of fact. I fully expect that it will continue to hang on; it might even overtake AOL in search. But I can’t see it ever becoming the household name in search that Google and Yahoo! have become. I would like nothing better than to be proven wrong; but I think, for the next few years at least, we will all continue “googling” for information online rather than simply “asking” for it.

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