Ask scrubs up for consumer appeal
The butler Jeeves has already been given his P45, but now the whole Ask website has had an overhaul, as the rival to Google, Yahoo! and MSN battles for search market share.
The first thing you notice about Ask.com is the cleaner interface, which is an attempt to become less cluttered and ‘more consumer focused’, the Ask VP of European Product Management, Tony Macklin, told us.
To this end, Ask has bitten the bullet and sacrificed advertising space, with 10 sponsored links being cut down to eight, with only three appearing above the fold. The right-hand side is also cleared of adverts to offer options for refining the search (whether to expand or narrow the search of peursue related names).
The minimalist interface perfected by Google is presented with a new twist – the ‘search toolbox’ on the right of the simple search box is the means for Ask to better understand the motivation behind your search. When shopping, for example, the search term ‘fridge’ would generate results suitable for people looking to buy a fridge. Similarly, via the Weather category, entering London, would present details of the temperature and exactly how grey the clouds are today.
Google has already made moves in this direction. Enter ‘capital Venezuela’, for example, and the first result will be: ‘Venezuela – Capital: Caracas’, with Google presuming to tell you the answer rather than just present search references. As with Google, Ask will also present the first 10 blue links regarding London and weather, should you still want to delve further beyond the ‘Search Answer’.
Other categories include: Images, News, Desktop, Maps & Directions, Weather, Shopping, Bloglines, Stocks and Shares, Dictionary, Thesaurus, Unit Conversion and Currency Conversion. You can customise the order of the categories via drag and drop.
A neat new feature are the little binocular icons beside each search result. Hovver over them, and a snapshot JPG of the destination page will be revealed. Research indicated people can tell at a glance whether the page they would land on is suitable, or not. The preview could minimise unnecessary click-throughs.
The Desktop option is a means of downloading Ask.com Desktop Search, which gives users the chance to Apply Ask searches to their local data.
In terms of its search algorithm, Ask is still powered by Teoma, which combines a page rank approach with a more local analysis of related data, i.e. it attempts to give weight to a small source of data that might be heavily referenced within a specialised area, and thus has more importance than its global weighting may suggest.
UK users will use Ask.com because research indicated that ask.co.uk suggested a regional site that did not search the full Internet. For categories such as Shopping and Weather, however, the focus is very much the UK.
Before you dismiss Ask as a lightweight contender trailing behind the other search giants, remember that Ask Jeeves was acquired for $1.85 billion by the Californian new media conglomerate IAC, which describes itself as the ‘seventh largest global web property’, owning as it does a range of consumer focused websites, such as Expedia and Ticketmaster. This gives it a weight of backing out of proportion to its current market size, and leaves plenty of scope for integrating basic search functionality with other areas of online consumption. It is this sort of integration that Google and Yahoo! – whether by innovation or acquisition – have long been pursuing as a means to become more than ‘just’ search engines.