overhauls search service

By Greenlight | 02 Jun 2007

By: Greg Sterling


Chris Sherman once compared to Apple. Ask CEO Jim Lanzone remarked to me that he liked the comparison because it spoke to quality and innovativeness. Indeed, among the top-tier search engines Ask has arguably been the most innovative. In one sense it has to be. Without that effort it might lose hold on the roughly 5 percent search market share it currently has.

But the site has never gotten the notice and usage that Lanzone feels is justified. That may change with the introduction of the new Ask -- "Ask 3D." The company is touting the release as a "major leap forward" for search. A bold three-panel interface (taken from the experimental Ask X) integrates more multimedia content, including images, videos, music files, as well as more structured text-based content. It also offers a battery of impressive features - new and existing - to bring more context and help to search results.

In general, Ask has done a tremendous job packing the results page full of content, tools and information without making that presentation cluttered or challenging to use. Users will have to discover and learn about all the tools and capabilities on the page, however.

The three panel design

Evolving out of the "Ask X" experimental design and interface that appeared without any fanfare in December, 2006 the new Ask features the same design with myriad improvements and enhancements. The left panel features Ask's " Zoom Related Search," which enables users to refine or expand their queries and suggests additional searches related to the query subject. Below is an example for "Tiger Woods." There are also dynamic search suggestions as users type queries.

The middle panel contains both Ask's "Smart Answers" -- structured content at the top of the page, which is query dependent -- and an improved " Binoculars" website preview feature with larger images.

But the right panel is arguably where the Ask 3D interface truly differentiates itself. This is where additional relevant content is presented. Depending on the query that can be content from blogs, news sites, video, images, RSS feeds, music files (with "in-line" play), dictionary definitions, time, weather conditions and other content. Below is an example of part of the content that appears in the right column for the search "Hillary Clinton."

You can also perform an image search from the right column. In general, Ask's image search and refinements are impressive.

Going head-to-head with Google

I performed a variety of searches in an informal test of how the new Ask 3D would perform versus market leader Google. The results were mixed. In several cases there was little difference in the quality, in some cases Google was better and in a few Ask was clearly better. In those cases where Ask was better it was due to the additional visual information and structured content on the page.

Compare, for example, the following search results:

Cheesecake Recipes: Google vs. Ask

Picasso: Google vs. Ask


Cancun: Google vs. Ask

In the above three results, Ask is much stronger. But compare a search for British pop star "Mika": Google vs. Ask. Here Google gets it right and includes a video in organic results. On Ask only the sponsored results are correct.

New video search

The new Ask integrates video search that allows sorting by length of video and by file type. There's also a feature analogous to "Binoculars" that Ask calls "rollover pre-roll." It provides a preview of the intended video without a click.

It will get attention but will it gain market share?

Ask's Jim Lanzone said he was weary of the "market share" discussion that inevitably comes up. He told me that Ask was trying, as a primary matter, to simply increase the frequency of millions of searchers who use the engine only once a month.

Corroborating this, the Piper Jaffray 2006 Online Media Survey found that while only 4 percent of respondents cited as their primary search engine, "more than 50 percent of the respondents at least sometimes use than the group who said the same about AOL search."

Internal Ask data, as well as the Piper Jaffray findings therefore suggest that Ask could still make gains even it if doesn't take share from one of its competitors. The fact that the UI and search results are visually differentiated from competitors, as a basic matter, will get attention and could encourage non-users to give Ask a try. In all likelihood, it will also help Ask gain some additional volume from its more "casual" users.

The broader market-share question confronts not only Ask but its larger competitors. Simply getting attention, let alone adoption and usage, is challenging when search engines and search results pages tend to closely resemble one another - and mostly emulate Google.

The idea that "the competition is just a click away" is also something of a misnomer these days. Google's brand equity and identification with search in the public mind, plus a growing range of products (toolbar, Maps, Gmail, iGoogle and others) directly and indirectly reinforce usage of Google search. Search behaviors are relatively entrenched and people are now generally comfortable and familiar with Google (putting aside some newer questions about privacy). In addition, Google continues to aggressively focus on search, most recently introducing personalization and "Universal Search."

The latter involves integration of more structured and vertical content into results. One could argue that while Google has made incremental changes in that direction, Ask has taken a much bolder leap toward similar goals with Ask 3D.

But that bold leap is perhaps more necessary than elective at this stage. You can't gain users if you can't get them to "look up" and take notice of your product. The striking visual elements of Ask 3D will likely get many people to take notice. Along those lines Ask has introduced "skins," which can be used to customize Ask's homepage. Below is "polka dots."

In the near term Ask will let users upload their own pictures to truly customize the engine. If, for example, a family picture or a personal favorite image is on your search engine that might motivate you to use it more. And while skins is a small thing, it contributes to the aesthetic and visual differentiation the site offers with its new look and feel. Similarly, Google recently introduced graphical headers ("themes") for iGoogle.

The bottom line: a good restart.

This post couldn't go into all the many features of the new site so take a look to see if you agree that this is a big step forward for Ask -- and one that may nudge some of its competitors to introduce more "content" into search results. I didn't do a systematic, side-by-side analysis of how the site performed compared with Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Dogpile or others. I merely compared a number of queries and search results with Google. As indicated, Ask seemed to really stand out on broad or vague queries, building more tools, structure and context around them to help guide users to a satisfactory result.

Ask 3D may perhaps ultimately be most helpful and even compelling to people who are not "power users." But it offers a set of tools and search capabilities that arguably could best be exploited by sophisticated or heavy search-engine users. There's something of a paradox in my mind.

Ask has launched a multi-million dollar ad campaign to raise awareness of and support the product. It will likely succeed at building awareness and gaining attention. The question will then become: can it build on this strong relaunch and generate momentum and long-term usage growth?