Jeeves Bows Out, and Ask Comes In

Jeeves has officially been served his walking papers. The Web search engine formerly known as Ask Jeeves unveiled the new Ask.com look at Search Engine Strategies New York 2006, during a keynote speech by Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of parent company IAC/InterActive Corp.

“We needed to drop some baggage, and the baggage was, I thought, that character,” Diller told the crowd in his talk. “It connoted something that I didn’t think allowed Ask to play in the center world of search, something that niched us in a way.”

That “something” was the widely held public impression that Ask Jeeves was primarily the search engine you could ask natural-language questions of. In fact, Ask Jeeves dropped those predictive questions from its feature set five years ago, when users grew accustomed to keyword searching.

“But I always loved the word ‘Ask’—I think it’s a fine name for a search engine,” he said. “And I never think you should do anything radical with a brand anyway.”

(Of course, another speaker at the SES conference observed, if you’re trying to get away from an association with questions, “Why would you call yourself ‘Ask’?”)

As demonstrated during Diller’s talk by Jim Lanzone, Ask’s senior vice president of search properties, the new Ask home page is predominantly white and clutter-free, without ads. A toolbox along the right edge lets users select to search the Web or do more specialized news, image or local searches. They can also select a number of reference tools for an encyclopedia, dictionary or thesaurus, currency and unit conversions, and a phone directory.

“We’ve found that people use these kinds of tools,” Lanzone said. “Dictionary is the number one search that we get every week on Ask.com. But people didn’t know that they could get that right from our site.”

Ask.com offers users a new Web-based desktop search application similar to Google’s, and also includes a toolbar button for Bloglines, the popular RSS aggregator that IAC acquired last year. Its mapping service offers aerial views like those at other search sites but puts more emphasis on trip planning and driving directions. Users can simply drag and drop the “pushpin” at the end of a trip to plot another course on the fly. Users can even customize the directions for walking rather than driving, to ignore one-way streets.

“It’s like putting search on speed dial,” Lanzone said. “A lot of people in the industry know about the value of these tools, but the average user doesn’t. This is how we’re showing them what’s in the Swiss army knife.”

Diller stressed that consumers could now consider making Ask their primary search engine, rather than the number two or three fallback. While competitors have branched out into lots of other features, “we really concentrated on everyday search, because we think there’s much to be done,” he said.

Diller, one of the motivators behind the creation of the Fox TV channel, was asked if he thought the search market was ready for its own “fourth network”. He said what was needed was a differentiated search engine. “In making the Fox Channel in the ‘80s, we didn’t want to make another network; we wanted to make an alternative to the three networks. If you use the site and access the easy way that Ask arranges information-gathering, I think you’ll see the differentiation.”

As he has said before, Diller stressed that this was a time for development and building at Ask, not for grabbing market share from competitors like Google and MSN. “I don’t think that it matters whether we have 6% [of the search market] or 2%,” he said. “What matters is whether we’re relevant.”

“We don’t expect great earnings from Ask for some time. What we want to do—and we’ve just begun—is to invest in real terms in this area which we think is at its very beginnings. We’re very long-term in our approach.”

As a standalone company before its purchase by IAC last year, “Ask Jeeves had to dance to the tune of the Street, it had to meet its quarterly numbers, and it had far too many ads on the page.” Diller said. “So it really couldn’t compete. This is the first time we’re saying, ‘Try it. It does have differentiating things about it, and you may like them.’ I’m convinced that we will gain people that want to use it, either as their first choice or their second choice.”

Regarding Ask.com’s competitors, Diller said he found Google’s unofficial “Don’t Be Evil,” slogan “a bit pretentious.” “Google is now in real business, and like any business, they do a lot of things that some people are not going to like, and those people will think badly of them: competitors, people who’ve had the algorithm change on them so they’ve lost business.”

On the bad publicity Google and Yahoo! have received for acceding to the Chinese Government’s desire to remove some pages from their Chinese Web indexes, Diller said the issue had been overblown by the media. “If you’re going function in another country, you have to obey the country’s rules,” he said. “If you can’t, then don’t go. You can’t complain about it or get hypocritical. You simply have to say, ‘Can I stomach operating in a country that has, God knows, enough people to make it a market and has certainly come a long way in terms of having a business culture?’” Several of IAC’s Web properties operate in China now, and the company has plans to offer a regional search engine there, Diller said.

He also said that Ask.com would resist any attempts by the U.S. government to acquire data about searches and keywords, just as Google is fighting a subpoena from the Justice Department for anonymous search data. “All of us in the information world have enormous amounts of data on customers and employees, and we have an absolute obligation to protect it,” he said. “Guard it with your life. If you don’t you’re going to lose your customers.”

Despite his own well-documented impatience with the character, Diller admitted that the Jeeves mascot gave the old search engine a touch of humanity and would probably be missed by some. In fact, after the announcement of Jeeves’ impending retirement was made last week, the company set up a micro-site where users could vote on one of five ways for the superannuated search symbol to live out his golden years. The public vote has not yet been tabulated.

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