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Can Ask.com take a bite out of Google?

Once upon a time, over 40 years ago, Avis was drowning in a sea of red ink – 13 years of losses – as it struggled in the long shadow cast by Hertz. Then came the ad campaign that saved the day: “We’re Number 2 – We Try Harder.”

Today, Ask.com – the search engine that used to be called AskJeeves – is in a similar tight spot: dwarfed by competition from Google, armed with a site redesign it hopes will reorganize the online world into a far more financially favorable universe.

Ask is a lot older than Google, but its use and revenue pales by comparison.

And Ask.com truly is trying harder with a new release of its search engine that presents search results in ways that are far more accessible and user friendly than Google’s.

The new Ask.com, which has just launched, presents results in a three-panel display that lets you more easily narrow your results, see relevant hits and find related material.

Given that she’s just entered jail, I couldn’t resist trying out the new Ask by looking up everyone’s favorite socialite, Paris Hilton.

The left panel lets you expand or narrow your search and suggests related names like Nicole Richie, Carmen Electra and Jessica Simpson.

The middle panel lists the usual sites you’d expect – her official site and various sites that write about her. Like Google, it seems to be in order of relevancy and importance. Unlike Google, you don’t always have to click on a link to get a clue as to what you’ll find. On many links there is a little binocular to the left that you can mouse over to see a graphical preview of what’s on that site.


Click here to hear Larry Magid’s podcast interview of Ask.com VP Doug Leeds.


Depending on your bandwidth, there may be a slight delay before you see the site’s thumbnail but it’s almost always faster than clicking on it and it does sometimes save you from wasting clicks.

In the right panel there are other key elements related to the search. In this case, images — pictures of the hotel heiress, “news images” – photos from the AP and other sources as well as links to videos and shopping resources, should you wish to purchase “Paris Hilton-signed Calvin Klein birthday party 8×10 photo” or perhaps a Paris Hilton handbag. An orange Paris Hilton prison jumpsuit isn’t online yet but I’m sure it’s coming soon.

In some cases, video and audio files can be played directly from within Ask.com so you don’t have to go out to another site for, say, a 30 second snippet of a song.

Much more interesting than the latest resident of the detention facility in Lynwood, California, is the other Paris – the one in France. I used Ask to look up simply Paris and got far more useful information than I did when I made the same query in Google.

In the “Narrow Your Search” section are clear links to a map of Paris, Paris tourism, population of Paris, Paris city map, facts about Paris and other useful information. The middle column has the usual links and the right column has custom tailed material including images of the city of lights, encyclopedia information about the city and even the current weather in Paris, France.

Ask.com CEO Jim Lanzone said that the new Ask, which they are calling Ask3D, “reduces the amount of hunting and pecking it takes for people to find what they need. We do this by delivering the right information, from the deepest range of content, all on one clean and simple page.”

Referring to the competition, he said that “On average, it takes people four queries to find what they are searching for online. This is because search engines have forced people to wade through endless lists of links, and refine query after query, to find the right information.”

Ask.com has also redesigned its home page. It’s clean and simple but not quite as reductionist as Google’s. There are links to searching the web, images, news and blogs plus the City link that searches local content for cities around the U.S. using data from Ask’s sister company Citysearch.

In addition to the default interface, Ask will allow users to apply “skins” to customize the look and feel. You can, for example, choose a theme of flowers or an image of the western sky. Personally I think that’s a bit of a waste of time but a lot of people do enjoy the user choices that come with “skin” software.

And in case you haven’t seen Ask’s ubiquitous algorithm commercials the company, according to Vice President Doug Leeds, is trying to distinguish itself from other search engines by emphasizing its technology.

“We take a very different approach to the way we organize (prioritize) information on the web,” Leeds explains. “Instead of merely counting up links to a website and using that popularity rank to determine where they show up on a search results page, we actually categorize the web into communities of experts and then we rate the experts links to different sites higher. So, you’re a little going to get richer results from smaller sites that you may have never heard of.”

Google’s algorithm is said to rank sites based on the importance of sites that link to them.

Leeds cites the difference between how Ask and Google locate sites when you search “fantasy baseball.” Google’s top hits are from Yahoo’s fantasy sports and ESPN, because those are very popular sites with a lot of links. Ask’s top sites are fantasybaseballcafe.com and rotoworld.com because, says Leeds, “those are the sites the
sites the experts visit.”

While Ask.com isn’t likely to unseat the number one search engine, it is worth using when you’re looking for a more organized set of results.

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