Ask.com is releasing a new blog search feature on their search engine, as well as integrating search more into their leading web-based RSS Reader Bloglines. You'll recall that Ask.com (or Ask Jeeves as it was known then) acquired Bloglines in February 2005 - and ever since then a lot of us have been waiting for Ask.com functionality to be integrated into Bloglines. Not to mention waiting for a Bloglines UI overhaul... but more on that later in this post. So finally Ask.com has come out with some new functionality for Bloglines - and I have to say it's a noticeable improvement. Mike Arrington also seems impressed.
I'll start with the new Ask.com features. Admittedly I never use the Ask.com search engine. I'm one of the many millions who over the years has got hooked on Google's search engine - and have no reason to switch. But the latest comScore search engine stats show Ask.com has 5.9% of the market, which is not insignificant. Still, it's well behind Google (42.7%), Yahoo (28.0%) and MSN (13.2%). Also it's behind AOL (7.6%), so Ask.com is 5th overall. Search Engine Watch analysis shows that Ask.com has stayed pretty steady throughout the past year - neither growing much or losing share.
Next generation blog search?
Interestingly, according to the media material provided to me, Ask.com is pitching the new blog search features as being "the next generation" of Blog and Feed Search - moreso than being a value-add to its Web search engine. This suggests it is eyeing the blog search market that Technorati currently dominates. What isn't surprising is that Ask.com is finally leveraging their Bloglines asset. They say they are combining Ask.com’s "world-class search technology" with "the industry’s most robust feed and article data" from Bloglines. While Ask.com's search engine prowess could be questioned (when comparing it to Google especially), I certainly agree that Bloglines has a very rich blog data set that probably isn't matched by any other vendor (except maybe Yahoo).
Ask.com claims that its blog search will yield superior results, due to that by now familiar 2.0 term "collective human intelligence". They state:
"Instead of crawling, Ask Blog & Feed Search harnesses the subscription data of hundreds of thousands of real people who use Bloglines, the #1 online feed reader, to create our search index. In the absence of a mature link structure, people provide the best way to discover the freshest, highest quality feeds -- information that isn’t exposed to crawlers. In addition, this “collective human intelligence” provides a natural defense against spam, as people typically do not subscribe to low quality content."
So Ask.com really is making the most of its Bloglines asset - and again I must use the word *finally*! In essence they're saying that Bloglines users tell the engine what is the best content. Ask.com is also applying their search algorithm on top of the Bloglines subscription data. Users can then filter their results.
As well as the 'Advanced Search' option, there are three sorting tabs - Relevance, Most Recent, Popularity. When I spoke to the Ask.com team on the phone, I asked what the difference was between Relevance and Popularity. I was told that Relevance analyzes the link structure, using their search algorithm - it's "subject specific popularity". The Popularity tab on the other hand analyzes the number of subscribers and links within Bloglines.
The other main features of Ask.com blog search are:
1. Binoculars - Roll-over to preview the site without leaving the page.
Uses some neat-o Ajax technology, that previews the last 5 posts of a blog. In my testing
it did load slightly slowly and the pop-up went outside the browser frame at the top (in
Firefox). But those are minor glitches, which will be improved I'm sure.
2. Subscribe - Subscribe to feeds using your preferred reader. Interestingly, Ask.com doesn't just offer the Bloglines reader - but options to subscribe using Google Reader, Newsgator, Yahoo, and a generic RSS button (in that order). Also, and this is a key feature I look for in blog search engines, I can subscribe to search queries.
3. Post To - Share results by posting them to your favorite sites. The options are Bloglines (post-it feature), digg, del.icio.us and newsvine (in that order).
There are also 3 types of results - Posts, Feeds, News. I asked about how the News sources are chosen and was informed that it's an editorial judgement by Ask.com staff - much like how Google News chooses its sources. This will supposedly provide "more professional" results. Although I was disappointed to discover that neither Read/WriteWeb or my ZDNet blog is deemed "professional" enough to make the cut... yet (hint, hint).
There are a whole lot of other features, but best to check those out by using the new Ask.com blog search yourself. Just go to the ask.com homepage and click on 'Blogs and Feeds' at the bottom of the right-hand menu. My tests revealed some good results - however my own blog was conspicuously absent most of the time! A fixable glitch I'm sure :-)
New Bloglines features - but no new UI
As for Bloglines integration of Ask.com search technology, the only UI addition is a new 'Search' tab at the top of the page. There are some nice filtering options, such as limiting your searches to your own feed subscriptions. Plus things like citation search and 'Top Queries for the Past Hour'. There are also post and feed previews, using Ajax magic. Also the same filtering options available in Ask.com blog search - Relevance, Freshness, Popularity, etc.
But... that same old blue and boxy UI. There has been some Ajax fairy dust sprinkled over it (with the post and feed previews), but when oh when will we see an upgrade to Blogline's UI?! I put this question to the friendly Ask.com people who showed me the demo. They told me that for this upgrade they focused on functionality. The roadmap for Bloglines development does have both feature and UI upgrades in it, but a timeframe for this wasn't revealed to me. I was also told that they "don't want to shock our user base" with a UI overhaul, because they have such a large user base and everybody has different ideas on what a good UI should look like - should it be river of news, three panes, etc.
Overall, this is a great move by Ask.com to integrate the Ask.com technology with the Bloglines subscription user base. To be honest, well overdue - but I'm glad the blog search part is here now. It remains to be seen whether it'll offer enough desirable functionality to seriously challenge Technorati, which has a lot of unique features and has become relatively stable over the past 6 months or so. But Ask.com is now in the blog search game - which is the main thing.