Allen Stern over at CenterNetworks has an interesting post today about Ask.com, in which he lays out his strategy for getting the search engine back on track. That caught my eye because last night when looking over the latest search data from Nielsen//NetRatings, Richard and I started talking about Ask.com. They have a long uphill battle if they want to make a dent in the search market, and I'm talking about a very steep hill (you might call it a mountain). While Ask.com has sat steady at the #5 spot among search engines the last few months, their 1.8% market share is a far cry from Google's 55.2%, or even MSN/Live's distant third place share of 9%.

Ask.com is planning a $100 million marketing blitz this summer with the intention of grabbing more of the search market, which includes the guerilla billboard campaign against Google already underway in the UK. However, according to Hitwise, Ask.com's share of the UK search market has actually fallen in recent months, while Google's has risen. So it remains to be seen if a large marketing assault will yield any long-term benefits for Ask.com.

Allen Stern argues for a 5-pronged attack (below, along with my take):

"1. Push hard to get site publishers to integrate the Ask engine, even offering cash for the swap. I would certainly change some of my sites to use Ask.com if they came calling. This is the way to begin the movement, not with stupid billboards."

Getting publishers involved is a great idea. There was a rumor last year that Mozilla made $72 million via the search bar in the Firefox browser. True or not, it seems likely that the spread of the ubiquitous Google search bar on sites and browsers has helped cement the engine in the top spot.

"2. Look at the data and privacy issues Google is facing and attempt to leverage those."

This is certainly an area where Google is vulnerable. And this is essentially what Ask.com is doing with their billboard campaign in the UK: portraying Google as a "big brother" entity that has so much data and influence that they'll be able to control our lives. However, going negative can sometimes backfire.

"3. Focus on owning categories... I have played a bit with their Kids search and I like it. This is an area Google does not have. Why not attempt to own this market?"

One way that Yahoo! has continued to compete with Google is via their great content. Ask.com, like Yahoo!, has some amazing content sites on which to draw. Their parent company, IAC/InterActiveCorp, owns major web properties like Ticketmaster, Evite, Lending Tree, Citysearch, Bloglines, and Match.com that Ask.com could potentially draw on to build out its services.

"4. Work with bloggers in the tech sector, invite them to visit and learn more about Ask.com and spread the word. Don't be afraid of the negative reviews. Remember people like the "Google Feeling". I don't see Ask trying to create a "feeling"."

There's no such thing as bad press!

"5. Use the Ask local tool and create local parties that can demo the Ask suite of tools. Remember it's about a feeling. No one cares about the results."

I'm not sure that no one cares about the results. I'd argue that Google's results are a huge reason they're #1. The cultural phenomenon that is "googling" certainly contributed to it, but without the product to back it up, marketing and buzz (usually) won't get you very far.

Hit Google Where It Hurts: Ads

One area I think Allen neglects to mention is text ads. Text ads make up most of Google's revenue stream, and according to their most recent financial statement, text ads served via Adsense on third-party sites made up a whopping 37% of their total $3.66 billion revenues for the quarter.

Ask.com will reportedly be launching an Adsense competitor to all web publishers by the end of the year. This, I think, is an area that Google dominates which is currently ripe for competition (more so than search). Google's service isn't great (the most glaring check against them, in the eyes of publishers, is their lack of transparency -- they don't disclose how much of the ad revenue is being shared), and publishers are always willing to try out a new service to see if it makes them more money. And Google would take a serious hit in the pocketbook if a powerful competitor emerged. Yahoo! has its own competing service, the Yahoo! Publisher Network, but it is currently in the middle of a long beta roll-out, and thus far has not gained enough traction to be called a major competitor.

Ask.com, meanwhile, has a large number of quality internal page views it can use to jump start its network and attact top tier advertisers. Indeed, IAC/InterActiveCorp plans to roll out Ask.com contextual text ads across their network by the end of this month.

Here are some things I think Ask.com needs in order to compete with Google:

  • Good advertiser campaign management and bidding tools. This is an area in which Google excels, and without happy advertisers, you have nothing.
  • Good publisher management and reporting tools. I want complete control over the ads on my site, and I want to know which ads are performing the best, when, how, and why. I also want to be able to call up specific data about my site's past performance and have it displayed to me in any way I can fathom.
  • Great contextual ad matching technology. Google does this better than anyone. Yahoo! Publisher Network never served ads nearly as well targeted for me as did Google Adsense, and is a reason many publishers don't make the switch.
  • Transparency. Tell publishers how much they're making per click, and how much of each sale that is.
  • High paying advertisers. Yahoo!'s network generally gets higher paying ads since they restrict publisher sites to those with US traffic, if Ask.com can replicate that on a global scale, they would be very popular with publishers.
  • A way to stop click fraud. Click fraud is the bane of Google's existence and they say it costs them $1 billion/year. Find a way to fight it while keeping both publishers and (more importantly) advertisers happy and you'll be sitting pretty.
  • Get top publishers (i.e., bloggers and Adsense legends who have a voice in the publisher community) on board early and keep them happy. Knowing your core users and getting them to evangelize your products on their own is a great way to attract the masses.
  • Further develop their "hybrid" text ads. Last December, Google required publishers to stop putting thumbnails next to Adsense ad units, a practice that greatly increased CTR (but some said greatly reduced quality of clicks). I, and many other publishers, wrote to Google requesting that they allow advertisers to choose their own, related thumbnail image to put next to ads and keep everyone happy. Ask.com has demonstrated their own "hybrid" text ads that combine thumbnail images with ads. These could be very popular with many publishers.

Conclusion

So can Ask.com take down Google in search? Not any time soon. First it has to catch up to AOL, who served about 245 million more searches than Ask.com last month -- Google is multiple billions of searches per month ahead. Don't even think about them. Can Ask.com hurt Google in the piggy bank by building out a third-party contextual publisher network? If they play their cards right, I certainly think so. What do you think?