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Ask.com’s Usability Architect: Exclusive Interview With Michael Ferguson
I love an underdog, especially a smart underdog. So I’m definitely rooting for Ask.com, because I think they’ve been an undervalued player in the search game. All the headlines have been focused on the big three and in the meantime, the team back at Ask.com has been quietly building a better search engine. A much better search engine. And from the user’s point of view, one of the main people to thank is Michael Ferguson, Ask’s key user interface person.
Michael and I met a few years ago when we both presented on the same panel at Search Engine Strategies (the name of the city escapes me at the moment). This was back when the butler was safely riding high at the top of the results page. Jeeves seemed blissfully unaware of what his fate might be in a few short months. I was a little apprehensive when I saw Michael’s name on the panel notes, because I had publicly taken Ask Jeeves to task a number of times previously for their unabashed jamming of sponsored ads at the top of the page, driving the top organic listings below the fold. Our first eye tracking study had showed what a dangerous and limited view of monetization this was. You might make the quarter, but you’re blowing off your customers and in the long run, it will kill you. I was picturing an ugly public display of differing viewpoints, degenerating into a full blown SES smackdown.
After the session, when Michael and I grabbed a few moments to chat, I hesitantly touched on this. To my surprise, Michael’s first comment was “You think I don’t know that?” He then launched into a bit of a rant (it was a very gentile rant, Michael is a pretty low-key guy) about how he’d been passionately arguing this internally to anyone who would listen. Well, with IAC’s acquisition of Ask, it seems they’re listening. Michael has the room to do what he wants with the user experience, and monetization has been moved down the priority list in favor of winning back users. See, what did I tell you about Ask being smart?
Anyway, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Michael as a usability guy and now that he has to freedom to work, I knew we’d be seeing some promising things rolling out of the Ask X sandbox. I had a chance to catch up with Michael a week or so ago just to check in. As per normal with these interviews, I’ll be pulling excerpts and adding my analysis for this column and I’ve posted the full transcript on my blog.
The first thing I did was ask about Michael (and Ask’s) approach to user experience:
Michael: A lot of what we do is, to some extent, informed by core search needs but also by our relevant market share, understanding that people have often experienced other engines before they come to us, not necessarily in that session but generally on the web. People have at least done a few searches on Google and Yahoo, so they have some context coming from those search experiences. Often, we’re taking what we’ve learned from best practices from our competitors and on top of that, trying to add a lot of product experience and relevance experiences that are differentiated.
And also, of course, we’re come from this longer history of the company where we’ve had various user experiences over the time we’ve been around. We marketed around natural language in the late 90’s and answered people’s questions at the top of the page, but in the last year and a half or so, we’ve rebranded and really focused on getting the word out to the end users that we are a keyword search engine, an everyday search engine. A lot of the things that we’ve done with users have been to try to implicitly, if not explicitly, inform users that are coming to the site you can use it very much like you can use any other kind of search engine you’ve been on before. Or, if they’re current users and people are coming back to the site, to let them know that the range of experiences and the type of information we bring back to them has greatly expanded. It’s informed by the context of not just a sense of pure search and information retrieval and all the research that’s gone on that in the last 35 or 40 years, but also the dynamics of the experiences that we’ve had before and people’s previous experiences with Ask and then, an acknowledgement that they’ve often searched and looked for information on other sites.
The role of being number 4 (although they’re not that far behind Microsoft) has put Ask in an interesting position. They can take chances the other players can’t with the interface, because they don’t have to worry as much about disrupting a major revenue channel. For Michael, this represents a golden opportunity to take some risks and push the competition in terms of interface innovation. The sandbox of that innovation has been AskX.com, but it looks like Michael and his team are shortening the rollover cycle from the beta bed to the live site, based on good user testing results. During our interview, I did a couple of queries and noticed some recent additions to the main Ask site that had migrated over from AskX. I asked Michael where they were with that.
We’re still in testing with that and it will roll out. We have decided because of a lot of the user experience metrics that we’re getting from the beta test that we’re going to go for it. We have decided to move the full experience over from the Ask X experience. So that will happen sometime this year, we don’t know exactly when. We just, a couple of days ago, really decided we’ve seen enough and we’re pretty excited about that. Google has a really great user experience going, and Yahoo does too, but they have so many different levers that move so much revenue and traffic and experience metrics that I think it’s harder for them to take chances and to move things around and get buy-offs, at a bureaucratic level.
To some extent, we see ourselves as having permission and a responsibility to really innovate on the user experience. It’s definitely a good time for us because we have such great support from IAC and they’re very much invested in us improving the user experience and getting more traffic and frequency and taking market share. They’re ready to very much invest in that. So we don’t need to cram the page with sponsored links. It’s mostly a transitional time when we’re getting people to reconsider the brand and the search engine as a full keyword based, everyday search engine that has lots to offer. There are so many things that, in an informed way, we can make changes on, relative to our competitors.
So, in the short term, what does that mean for the presence of sponsored ads on Ask? Will we be seeing more, less or about the same?
Just to fit along with the logic of Eye Tracking II (Enquiro’s second eye tracking study), those ads are not a delineated part of the user experience for the end user and they’re relevance and their frequency can color the perception of the rest of the page and especially the organic listings below them. Right now, as I said, we’re very much focusing on improved user experience and building frequency and retention of customers, which all the companies are, I’m sure. But we’re really being cautious with the ads and getting them there when they’re appropriate and, as best we can, adjust them over time, so that when they’re there, they’re going to valuable for the user and for the vendor.
I couldn’t help bring up Jeeves’ sordid past when it came to sponsored ads, knowing that Michael would be happy to rise to the occasion and explain his dilemma.
Way before we got acquired by IAC we knew that (we were showing too many ads). We test like other engines would. We test lots of different ad configurations and presentations and things like that but definitely you want to balance that. Way before we got acquired we realized that there’s one thing that’s kind of fun about making the quarter and blowing through it a little bit and then there’s another thing about eroding customers. And definitely there’s a lifetime value that can be gained by giving people what you know is a better user experience over time, so once we did become part of the IAC family, we brought them up to speed with the results that we were finding that were pointing to taking that road and they’ve very much been in support of it. And, of course, their revenue is spread amongst a lot of different pieces of online and offline business so their ability to absorb it is probably more flexible than ours was as a stand alone company.
When I asked whether, as part of the IAC family, we can expect to see the folding in of more of the siloed content on the main site page, Michael indicated that this is path they need to approach cautiously.
Maybe the most powerful thing about the internet is that you as an individual now have a very empowered position relative to other producers of information, other businesses where you can consume a bunch of different points of view, a bunch of different opportunities to do business. You can get the lowest price and read reviews that the company itself hasn’t sanctioned, and have access to your peer network and to your social networks. Search, like the internet, becomes, and it necessarily needs to be, a proxy for that neutral, unbiased view of all the information that’s available.
This probably gets a little bit into what may or not may work with something like Google’s search history. Users over time have said again and again don’t hide anything from me or don’t over-think what you may think I might want. Give me all of the best stuff, use your algorithms to rank all that, but if I get the sense that anything’s biased or people are paying for this, then I’m not going to trust you. I’m going to go somewhere else where I can get that sense of empowerment again.
As I’ve sat in user experience research over time, you ask them why they think this came up first on Google, but maybe with a navigational query like Honda or Honda Civic or something like that and Honda comes up first, they’ll say, “Oh, Honda paid for that.” So even with the engines that aren’t doing paid inclusion there’s still this kind of wariness that consumers have of just generally somebody on the internet, somewhere, behind the curtains, trying to take advantage of them or steer them in some way. So as soon as we got acquired by IAC, we have made it very much part of their perception of this and their culture and their product management point of view is that you can’t sacrifice that neutrality. You can’t load a bunch of IAC stuff all over the place. The relationship with IAC does give us access to proprietary databases that we can do lots of deep dives in and get lots of rich information out that can help the user in their instance of their search needs that other companies wouldn’t be able to get access to, while maintaining access to everything else.
The way we approached AskCity was a great example of this. We had leveraged a lot of CitySearch data but at the same time, we know that when people go out and want to see reviews, they want to see reviews from AOL Neighborhoods, they want to see reviews from Yelp and they want to see reviews from all these other points of view too so we go and scrape all those and fold them into the CitySearch stuff. We give access to all those results that come up on AskCity. If they’re, for instance, at a restaurant, you can get OpenTable reviews and you can get movie reservations through Fandango and other things like that. Those companies have nothing to do with IAC. Those decisions were borne from user needs and from us looking as individuals in particular urban areas, and asking “Hey, what would I want to come up?” So we’re going to be very balanced with being at the right time. We know from previous experience from AOL that the walled garden thing doesn’t work. It’s just not what people expect from search and not what they expect from the internet, so that lesson’s been learned. I don’t know how much it would be different if we had some dominant market share over search, but that’s even more reason for us to be appealing to as wide a population as possible.
Of course, with personalization looming on the horizon, I had to ask Michael about Ask’s plans for increasing relevance and disambiguating intent. It appears they’re putting their eggs in a basket called “Edison.”
The other major thing that’s going on right now is that we have fully revamped how we’re taking this. We developed Direct Hit late 90’s technology. And then the Teoma technology we acquired. And really, it’s not that we’re taking those to the next level, we got all of that stuff together and over the past three years, we’ve been saying, “Okay, what do we have and what’s unique and differentiated?” So there’s a lot of great user behavior data that Direct Hit understands. We have a whole variety of things there and that’s unlocked, that’s across all the people coming in and out over time but not any personally identifiable type of stuff. And then there’s the Teoma stuff, which is good at seeing communities on the web and then expertise within the communities and how communities relate.
So right now, even though we have personalization stuff and My Stuff and other things that are coming up, we’re investing a lot more in the next version of the algorithm and the infrastructure for us to grow what we call Edison. And we started talking about that a week ago, since AG (Apostolos Gerasoulis) mentioned it, so that across a lot of user data it understands a lot about the context from the user intention side and then, because we’re constantly capturing the biology of the web and its communities and how they’re related, we then matching them to the intention and the map of the web as it stands and the blogosphere as it stands and other domains as they stand. Our Zoom product, which is now on the left under the search box in the AskX experience and it’s on the right on the live site, is the big area that we’re going to more passively offer people different paths. If you search for U2, it’s going to tend to bring up news, and product results, and video results and images, and a Smart Answer at the top of the page. It’s also going to know that there’s U2 as the entity, the music band and therefore search the blogosphere but just search within music blogs. So what it’s doing, over time, is trying to give a personalized experience that’s informed by lots of behavior and trying to capture the structure of the web.
I wrapped up by asking Michael where Ask would be in two years if he had his way.
We’d definitely have significantly more than 10% market share. My point of view from dealing with the user experience is that I’ve been proud of the work that we’ve done and I really think that we’ve been very focused and innovative with a very talented team here. We’re really hoping that as we look at the rest of the year and we put out Edison and the AskX experience, that we become recognized for taking chances and presenting the user experience in a differentiated way that people have to respond to us in the market and start adopting some of the things that we’re doing. Because of the amount of revenue that Microsoft, Yahoo and Google are dealing with on the search side, they often get a lot of press but our hope is really to take share and to hopefully have a user experience that informs and improves the user experience of our competitors.
In looking at the recent changes on the Ask and AskX interface, it appears that Michael’s on the right track. Although the Microsoft/Yahoo rumors appear to be just that for now, if the big three ever consolidate into two, I believe Ask has a real shot to pick up market share. Their biggest challenge is not the interface, but the back end infrastructure of their engine. The combination of Teoma and DirectHit technology have kept them in the ball game up to now, but if Google hits a relevancy home run with true personalization, the changes envisioned in Edison, although a significant step forward, might not be enough to keep them in the game. I’ve always said that one of the engines had to make a significant move to up the ante in the search game, but I didn’t think it would be Google. However, with their aggressive pursuit of personalization, Google is planning the same order of magnitude leap in relevancy performance that first characterized their entry into the search space. And because this is literally powered by Google’s own users, it’s very tough for a competitor to match that.
But personalization will take time, and of the 4 major properties, Ask is by far the most innovative in interface experimentation. In the short term, or in the case of Google striking out with personalization, Michael’s wish just may come true.
I’ve posted a full transcription of my conversation with Michael on my blog.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.