Can Ask.com's New Search Strategy Work?

Ask.com hopes it's found the answer to increasing its market share -- and no, the plan doesn't involve a butler named Jeeves

Ask.com hopes it's found the answer to increasing its market share -- and no, the plan doesn't involve a butler named Jeeves.

The fourth-place search engine has just announced a new site that focuses on Q&A-based queries. Rather than relying solely on the Web, the updated Ask.com combines real user interaction with standard Internet search to help you find the info you need.

Of course, the real question: Will it be enough to lure people away from Google?

Ask.com's New Search Concept

If Ask.com's new search concept has you feeling a sense of déjà vu, you're not alone: Back when the site first launched as Ask Jeeves, it had a similar question-oriented focus. This time, however, the power of the people is a core part of the equation.

Here's how it works: You type a question into the Ask.com home page and click "Search." The site returns a list of Web-based answers and then, in the new twist, provides you with a button to "ask the community," too.

Clicking this link allows you to fine-tune your question and list a series of keywords to help the system categorize the query. If you're asking about cookie recipes, for example, you might use keywords like "baking," "cookies," and "recipes." Ask.com would then route your question to other users who have indicated they're experts in those areas.

Me, I'm not so interested in baking. What I want to know is what that crazy cat Jeeves is up to these days. I asked the Ask.com community, but unfortunately, I didn't get much response -- in fact, my question appeared to be deleted shortly after I asked it. (For what it's worth, I've heard Jeeves was recently spotted working as a lifeguard in Kentucky.)

Once I switched to slightly more serious questions, Ask.com's new community search started giving me some answers. I asked the search engine a handful of things, ranging from the easy-to-answer ("What's the best way to get a six-pack?") to the philosophical ("What's the meaning of life?") and even the confusingly self-contradictory ("How do you ask a question on Ask.com?").

After about an hour, I had seven answers total, all of them honest attempts at addressing my queries. (I'm sad to say no one took a shot at the meaning of life, though one person did attempt to tell me how to ask a question on the site where I had just asked my question.) Looking at other users' submissions, my results seem pretty typical: Most recent queries had zero to four responses when I was signed in.

Now, to be fair, Ask.com's new community answer feature is still in limited-access beta -- according to the site, only about 13,000 people are signed up so far -- so the number of answers is sure to increase as the service opens up further. (You can request an invite here.) But there's enough going on now to get a general idea of what Ask's new search strategy is all about, and what it could potentially bring to the table.

Evaluating Ask's Search Strategy

Ultimately, it's hard not to think of the new Ask.com community search section as a glorified Yahoo Answers: You have a bunch of people asking random questions, and a bunch of other people attempting to answer them. Ask.com's take on user Q&A may be a bit smarter than some of its competition -- the site's "proprietary Q&A matching technology" supposedly routes your question to the best possible community experts, or at least the people who list themselves as experts in any given subject -- but it's still ultimately a user-generated Q&A site.

Ask.com does set itself apart from the pack by incorporating this element directly into its regular search product, which is also said to be geared toward natural-language-style questions. I'm not sure, though, if this is something a lot of folks are looking for in our modern search landscape; I tend to think most people want quick and authoritative answers over crowdsourced opinions -- information that rolls in over a matter of seconds instead of a matter of hours -- when they're turning to a search engine for help.

So, to return to our original question: Will Ask.com's new approach be enough to lure people away from Google? Honestly, it seems like a long shot. Right now, Ask.com sits at about 3.6 percent of the U.S. search market, according to the latest data available from ComScore. Google commands a whopping 63.7 percent of the American market, while Yahoo holds 18.3 percent and Microsoft has 12.1. Sure, things are in flux to a certain degree, but Ask is starting at a serious disadvantage -- and I'm not sure integrating a Yahoo Answers-style service into its search product is going to do much to convince users to change their habits.

That said, Ask.com's new strategy could deliver an indirect and slightly ironic benefit: By creating an ever-growing number of user-generated answer pages, Ask will likely gain decent placement in Google searches for commonly discussed topics. And that'll mean people searching Google for information will end up clicking on Ask's answers. So even if it doesn't attract hoards of new long-term users, Ask may find enough added incidental traffic to help it grow as a small but consistently present niche player.

A word of advice, though: If you happen to run into Jeeves, don't tell him about any of this. From what I hear, our ol' pal's still pretty touchy about the whole "forced retirement" thing.

JR Raphael is a PCWorld contributing editor and the co-founder of geek-humor site eSarcasm. He's on Facebook: facebook.com/The.JR.Raphael

This story, "Can Ask.com's New Search Strategy Work?" was originally published by PCWorld .

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