Ask.com Upgrade to Add Improved Relevance, Speed

Ask.com plans to upgrade its search engine on Monday with several enhancements that it considers significant and that it believes could give its popularity a boost in a market dominated by Google.

Ask.com has sharpened the relevance of its search results, made the engine faster and simplified the site's layout, said Ask.com President Scott Garrell.

"The strategy from a product perspective is to provide the best answer the first time, everytime," Garrell said. "We want to reduce the distance between your query and the answer you want."

If Ask.com can consistently provide direct answers in its search results page, Garrell believes it will grow its user base. It generally takes people 3 to 4 clicks in any search engine to get the desired information, he said.

Behind the scenes, Ask.com's makeover includes an improved ability to extract data from Web pages; to mix in a wider variety of result types like photos, news, images and videos; and to tap a broader pool of data sources for queries about entertainment, jobs, health and reference information.

With this upgrade Ask.com, owned by IAC, is also aiming to recapture the functionality that gave it its prominence during its heyday: the ability for people to type in queries in natural language. Ask.com is bringing this functionality back via a question-and-answer feature that uses semantic search technology to interpret the questions and return relevant answers found on the Web, Garrell said.

In the mid to late 1990s, before the rise of Google, Ask.com -- then called Ask Jeeves -- was a leading search engine, along with others like Altavista and WebCrawler. After the dot com bubble burst, Ask Jeeves de-emphasized its consumer search engine and focused on providing search services and software to the enterprise market. However, it abandoned this strategy in mid-2003, exiting the enterprise market and vowing to regain the ground lost in the consumer search space.

Since then, Ask.com has regularly updated and enhanced its search engine, often earning praise from industry experts for clever and useful innovations in technology and layout. Unfortunately, the company's share of search usage in the U.S. has fluctuated in recent years roughly between 4 percent and 7 percent, coming nowhere near market leader Google, which has in turn increased its dominance more and more.

For example, in November 2005, Google handled almost 40 percent of all U.S. queries, while Ask Jeeves placed fifth with 6.5 percent, according to comScore. By comparison, in August of this year, Google had a 63 percent share of U.S. searches, while Ask.com placed fourth with 4.8 percent, according to comScore.

Evan Andrews, a Jupiter Research analyst who was given a demo of the new and improved features, said Ask.com has a chance to attract new users, something that is hard in the search engine market because people grow very attached to their preferred provider -- Google for most.

However, there is a segment of users that Jupiter Research has identified as "power searchers" that have a voracious appetite for new search products and features. They might be drawn to give Ask.com a try and stick around if they like the improvements in blending different types of results, the so-called universal search concept that Google and all other major search providers are pursuing.

"Ask has always been a leader, a pioneer in universal search and pushed the envelope when it comes to that, so it stands a good chance to see additional gains in market share," Andrews said.

Andrews also liked the new Q&A search functionality, as well as the expanded repositories of structured data that Ask.com can tap to deliver direct answers to queries. "It's going to be difficult with just one announcement and some new features to overtake Google, but that doesn't mean Ask shouldn't try," he said. "Based on our research, the strategy of delivering richer search results is the right one."

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