AskJeeves Inc. today introduced Zoom and Web Answers, two new search services on Ask.com.
Zoom is a categorization technology that allows users to expand or narrow keyword searches based on conceptually related topics. Based on the company's Teoma search technology, it helps users find answers for ambiguous queries. For example, the keywords "Gang of Four" returns results related to former Communist Party leaders in China and to a British post-punk band of the same name. Zoom groups the results into separate topic links to make finding the desired information easier.
Web Answers represents an improvement of Ask Jeeves' Smart Search technology, which the company uses to provide specific answers for queries, as opposed to a list of ranked results. Previously, Smart Search divined answers from structured data, the sort found in databases. With the enhancements announced today, it now also mines unstructured data from Web pages, thus expanding the range of questions that Ask Jeeves can answer.
While Ask Jeeves has long been known for its ability to answer questions, it's only now beginning to get good at it. This is not to say it's perfect. Asked "What is the melting point of magnesium?", the Web Answer was "The melting point of magnesium is unexpectedly low." Still, an accurate answer could be found among the ranked results lower down on the page.
The question "Who wrote Blade Runner?" returned "Philip K. Dick wrote Blade Runner." That isn't quite right. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which the film Blade Runner was based. While Ask Jeeves may have accomplished the impressive technical task of finding an answer, its newfound ability to scour unstructured data on the Web means that its answers aren't necessarily culled from sources that care about accuracy. Even so, Web Answers performs well for general questions like "What is the deepest lake?"
Jim Lanzone, senior vice president of search properties for the company, acknowledges that Ask Jeeves' answers had problems in the past. "[Ask Jeeves] was a product that over promised and under delivered," he says. "What we realized was he had tens of millions of users and they were coming to us for search. But the company didn't have the products to provide that."
That began to change at the end of 2001 when the company acquired Teoma Technologies. The company has been steadily working to improve its competitive position against AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo in the search market. When IAC/InterActiveCorp said it would acquire Ask Jeeves in March for $1.85 billion, it became clear there would be five rather than four companies jockeying for the lead. And in terms of technology rather than traffic, AOL isn't really a player—it gets its search results from Google.
According to comScore Networks, the share of search queries in March broke down as follows: Google sites 36.4%, Yahoo sites 30.6%, MSN-Microsoft sites 16.5%, Time Warner Network (AOL), 8.9%, Ask Jeeves 5.5%.
"We're the only one that takes a different approach to our ranking algorithms for search," says Lanzone. "Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are essentially trying to emulate each other, to come back with results at parity. They all want to have essentially the same results. We look at it very differently." A recent study by search site Dogpile.com and researchers from The University of Pittsburgh and The Pennsylvania State University suggests otherwise. It found that just over 3% of search results from Ask Jeeves, Google, and Yahoo were the same.
But Gartner analyst Allen Weiner observes that Ask Jeeves' search technology really is different from what other companies are offering. He sees two distinct areas of innovation in search sites recently: improvements in core technologies that do indexing and improvements in user interface, result aggregation, and personalization. So far this year, he says, there's been an emphasis on the latter.
"This is a decided step away from that," he says. "And I think it's a clever move for a company that's perceived to be second tier while others are focusing on bells and whistles."
Particularly for a company that's coming from behind, Weiner believes that delivering a better search experience is critical. "When you are the next tier down, your ability to give people better searching is your greatest weapon," he says. "It's quite clear from research that everybody does, us included, that people are fickle. And if you can provide them with better results in a more usable fashion, such as Zoom, you have the possibility of gaining them as more loyal users."
Some of the company's technical improvements seem to be having that effect. Following an enhancement to Ask Jeeves' image search capabilities in February, Lanzone notes that the number of image searches has doubled in the past three months. While the company insists that the number of queries at Ask.com has been increasing, it says it does not provide specific numbers to support that claim. Nonetheless, given a 144% growth in revenue from 2003 to 2004, Ask Jeeves seems to be doing something right.