Ask.com has just announced the next stage in its evolution as a major search engine. It is called Ask3D, a name which had me expecting an amazing new leap in Web UI (3D search!!) and then got me reminiscing about the time I saw that Jaws sequel in 3D... Turns out Ask3D isn't quite as innovative as its name suggests, but still it is an iterative improvement over the previous version, called AskX (more on that below).
So what is Ask3D? It is essentially a synthesis of Ask.com's technologies and it integrates content from various media types (web, news, blog, video, images, etc) onto one page. That is where the similarities to Google's Universal Search come in. Ask.com itself says Ask3D is about synthesizing "across the three dimensions of search: Expression, Results and Content."
Further, the company says that Ask3D uses its "new Morph content-matching and ranking algorithm" and claims it "dramatically transforms the entire search results page based on your query by customizing sources, selecting content, ranking results and exposing tools differently for each different search you conduct." There's a bit of wordplay going on here, but essentially Ask3D is about unifying search results - as is the case of Google Universal Search.
Certainly, as Techcrunch noted, Ask3D is the next step up from AskX, the next-generation search UI that Ask.com released in beta back in December. Ask.com told Read/WriteWeb that "we've changed a lot, especially in the technology, since our AskX experiment, so this is really a brand new release."
In its promotional literature, Ask.com says that it has re-defined the process of searching:
"Before Ask3D, search required three separate and distinct steps: 1) composing a query, 2) reviewing search results, and 3) finding content. At each step, users were left to their own devices to iterate, investigate and navigate. After extensive development and live user testing, Ask.com has created a better way. Ask3D marries powerful new technology with innovative, patent-pending design to intelligently unify search, results and content into a single search application."
Ask.com is calling this "Instant Getification", a rather awkward phrase. It all sounds great in theory. How does it deliver though? I tested a few queries out. A search on "Barack Obama" was one of the better examples:
This query brought up a lot of very relevant info about Obama, including a short description of him, pointers to official and other relevant sites, images, news, info from Wikipedia, video, and shopping (you guessed it, "The Audacity of Hope [by Barack Obama]"). There are also lots of little 'nice to have' features, such as clicking on the binoculars bringing up a preview of the link:
Comparing Ask3D to AskX
At first glance the results in Ask3D didn't seem that different from my Lou Reed query of AskX last December:
But to make sure, I decided to re-do my Uncle Lou query in Ask3D...
Apologies for poor screenshot (I need to increase the width of this blog!), but I can tell you there are subtle improvements between AskX and the new Ask3D. It seems slightly less cluttered, and has some neat features like being able to play Lou Reed songs with just 1 click on the results page (it automatically went to iLike and started playing the songs). Also I discovered some great Lou content I hadn't seen before - like The Lost Lou Reed Interviews on YouTube! [note: it's not the real Lou Reed, but a somewhat fatter gum-chewing New Yorker with a beard! perhaps indicating the shortcomings of semantic search :-)]
While Ask.com is using some artistic license to describe the changes, it actually does seem to offer more utility than Google Universal Search. At its heart Ask3D is, like Google's upgrade, an integrated set of search results on one page. This is something that Ask.com has always tried to do - present search results that give a variety of content on one page, so users don't need to go hunting around for it. So Ask.com has more experience than Google at doing this; and I think it shows. The amount of useful information you get on page one of an Ask3D search results page, and how it's presented, is arguably better than what you'll get on Google (forgetting for a moment the quality of the underlying algorithm, which I didn't test).
So this is a good move by Ask.com to improve its UI and search results presentation. Will it be enough to overcome Google? Unfortunately it isn't that game-changing, especially as Google's Universal Search is tackling essentially the same problem (how to unify different types of search results in one page). But for now Ask.com has the edge in UI over Google, so maybe they will grab some much needed market share.