Ask.com and find out more about their search engine. This was straight after a Summit session entitled 'Disruption Opportunity: Beating Google at Their Own Game' - in which Ask CEO Jim Lanzone and Senior VP of the Online Services Group at Microsoft (and ex-Ask CEO) Steve Berkowitz discussed with John Battelle how they are competing with Google. R/WW's coverage of that session is here.During the Web 2.0 Summit, I got a chance to sit down with the team at
Letting the stats do the talking...
Whenever I talk to or meet Ask.com people, I always get the feeling they are a little pissed off at the lack of attention they get from blogs. To compensate, out come the stats to prove how big they are. For example, they often make a point of saying that Ask.com is the 5th biggest search engine in the US - behind Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL. Also, Jim mentioned during the Summit session that Ask is the 7th biggest web property in the US - ahead of the likes of Amazon, NY Times and Apple.
So there's no doubting that Ask.com is a significant player in the Web business - and I agree they don't get their due for that. But what about the actual product - the Ask.com search engine. How does it stack up? I spoke to the team and took the search engine for a test drive to find out...
What really differentiates Ask from Google?
I asked this of the Ask.com team, in our hallway meeting at the Summit. They told me that Ask's technology "looks at the Web differently". Whereas Google's PageRank ranks its search results by popularity, Ask has something it calls "ExpertRank". Essentially this is an automated search algorithm (like Google has), but on top of that results are ordered using topic communities and the editorial functions that create 'Smart Answers'. While the ExpertRank formula is a secret sauce that Ask.com won't divulge, they do say that the top results in searches are determined by expertise - and not popularity. As it states on their help pages:
"Identifying topics (also known as "clusters"), the experts on those topics, and the popularity of millions of pages amongst those experts -- at the exact moment your search query is conducted -- requires many additional calculations that other search engines do not perform."
I was curious to know how 'smart answers' are determined. For a start, they don't pop up on every search result - for example a search for "richard macmanus" displays my primary RSS feed at the top of the page, instead of a smart answer. The Ask team told me that smart answers are editorially done - and is a reminder of their natural language past. If you recall, Ask Jeeves (as it used to be known before the butler was fired, er I mean de-commissioned) started out as a search engine where you could ask a natural language question - e.g. "what the heck is web 2.0?" - and get back a good answer. Smart Answers is an extension of that philosophy of providing a natural language answer to a user's search query. It does this by a combination of automated data mining and human editorial. But the human editors don't physically write the answers, I was told - rather they act as aggregators and filters.
I was told that currently over 20% of Ask's entire search terms - and hundreds of categories - have a Smart Answer.
Comparison of Ask with Google
If you compare Ask.com to Google, there are immediately some noticeable differences. An obvious one is that Ask.com puts its advertisements within the main content pane, instead of in a separate right-hand pane like Google does. So when you do a general search in Ask, the right-hand pane is sometimes occupied by advanced search options. Also Ask often has their 'smart answers' (see above) at the top of the main pane. The effect of all this is to give the user more immediately useful information - and drill down options - on the first page of results. This is what Jim Lanzone meant at Web 2.0 Summit when he said that "Ask.com enables users to do more, faster."
Below are a couple of screenshots, showing a search on "new zealand" in Ask, followed by the same query in Google:
Other Features & Conclusion
Ask.com also says it does social search, but rather than rely on user tagging - which they say is only popular in niche tech circles (e.g. del.icio.us and Flickr) - Ask.com lets its algorithm do the work. It does this by breaking terms down into groups and presenting the results to the user. If you do a search on gardening for example, you'll see how it is broken down into multiple categories.
Ask.com also has the usual search portal (circa 2006) features - mobile, maps, news, blogs, binoculars (page preview), etc. There are subtle differences in all of those features when compared to Google, Yahoo and MSN. But ultimately I have to ask (pardon the pun): is Ask.com 'next generation' enough to challenge the big 3 plus AOL?
I do like the concept of ExpertRank and their willingness to get as much useful info on the first page of search results as possible. It seems like an innovative approach and certainly differentiates Ask from Google.
But when it comes down to it, the results I see aren't sufficiently different to make me want to change. I suspect a lot of Google's 50%+ market share of users feels the same. Ask.com is still a successful business though, even if they don't manage to make great inroads into the market. I'm sure Ask is not crying into its milk about being 5th.