San Francisco -- Jeeves may have vanished into thin air, but according to Ask.com, he is anything but forgotten. Ask.com, which has experimented with minimal success to transform itself into a search engine on par with those of Google and Microsoft, is making a shift into new direction and attempting to reinvent its search strategy around a more social experience, including an improved question-and-answer offering, rather than traditional search results.
Ask.com, the Internet search engine division of IAC/InterActive Corp., was historically an excellent portal where users could submit search queries in the form of a question, but now the company hopes to tap the knowledge of its end users to provide better answers for people who ask questions at its website, according to Tony Gentile, Ask.com's senior vice president of product management.
Ask.com is rolling out a new Q&A service that directs questions from users to members of its online community, as the firm struggles to make any impact on the search market. Ask's decision comes as firms such as Google are paying more attention to so-called “social search,” in an attempt to capture new growth areas as the traditional search ad market slows. Ask controls only slightly more than 3% of the US search market and its share is declining.
The company has commenced experimenting with the new service that represents a striking shift, lets users of its search engine submit questions to other Ask.com visitors, tapping into the powerful social networking trends that are increasingly gaining popularity on the Web, which like most Internet search engines has long chased to distinguish itself based on the brawn of its computer algorithms.
The beta version of Ask.com comes with a new interface and is designed to provide a more semantic search experience. The company has accumulated a database of 500 million question-and-answer pairings that cover about 60 percent of the queries submitted as questions. It will be released to users on an invite-only basis beginning today. The challenge, Gentile said, is how to handle the remainder.
“Humans need to be engaged in the process to get the other 40 percent,” he said.
The site, which is a recurrence to the company's roots, when it featured a dapper butler mascot who fetched answers to questions posed by users. A few years back, the company phased Jeeves out on its site in the United States (he later had a revival in Britain), and began to emphasize more traditional search functions based around key words and phrases.
“But people never stopped coming to us with their questions,” said Doug Leeds, the president of the company. “We started out that way and that is what people remember.”
Ask expresses that the new service features a revamped interface and proprietary technology for routing questions, rather than the traditional engine. The firm noted that the latest version of the site is meant to deliver real answers, as opposed to just links, and introduce a community element to deliver human answers to subjective and complex questions.
To develop its new Q. & A. engine, the company mentions that it drained out the entire last year refining algorithms and trawling Web sites like Yahoo Answers and ChaCha to index more than 500 million questions and answers.
If a question is not in the database, users can pose it to the Ask.com community, which Leeds says numbers close to 90 million monthly users.
“That content might not be published yet but it exists in someone's head,” he said. “Instead of looking for relevance, we are looking for answers.”
This beta roll-out is a combination of four new features: an altogether revamped look with a focus on emphasizing trending questions from the people, semantic search with answers shown on the page. Another option is a large Q&A database and a user community section that targets members for answering questions based on their areas of expertise.
“This trap that search finds itself in is understanding user questions in context,” said Gentile. “You have got to tap into people. There are new questions every day.”
Leeds stated that the latest inquisitiveness in questions comes from the evolving needs of people who do not want to spend a significant amount of time searching on the Web.
“There are still some things that Google does not do very well,” he said. “They are just trying to get you in the neighborhood of an answer. We want to deliver that answer.”
Ask.com is optimistic in their altered approach, though. “The evolution of our search technology, the rapid growth of the social Web and the shift in consumer search behavior are propelling Ask to the forefront of what we believe will be a multi-billion dollar Q&A category,” says President Scott Garell.
Leeds said he hoped that Ask.com's legacy would help give it an edge over rivals.
“Google is a verb,” he said. “But do not forget that 'ask' is a verb too.”