Ask Jeeves Polishes Search Tools - InformationWeek

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6/2/2005
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Ask Jeeves Polishes Search Tools

Categorization tool expands or narrows keyword searches based on conceptually related topics; Web Answers improves responses to queries.

Ask Jeeves Inc. last month introduced Zoom and Web Answers, two new search services on Ask.com.

Zoom is a categorization technology that lets users 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" return 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 in 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, it also mines unstructured data from Web pages, expanding the range of questions that Ask Jeeves can answer.

chart -- Search LeadersThe technology isn't quite perfected yet. 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 VP of search properties for the company, acknowledges that Ask Jeeves' answers had problems in the past. Ask Jeeves "was a product that overpromised and underdelivered," he says. "What we realized was we 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. Ask Jeeves, which IAC/InterActiveCorp said in March it will acquire for $1.85 billion, has been steadily working to improve its position against America Online, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo in the search market.

"We're the only one that takes a different approach to our ranking algorithms for search," Lanzone says. "Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are essentially trying to emulate each other. They all want to have essentially the same results. We look at it very differently." Ask Jeeves ranks sites based on the number of topically related pages that link to it, not just general online popularity like Google's PageRank.

Ask Jeeves' search technology really is different from what other companies offer, Gartner analyst Allen Weiner says. 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. "When you are the next tier down, your ability to give people better searching is your greatest weapon."

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 doesn't 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.

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