Ask.com: Today’s Google Free Alternative

Today’s the day we’re encouraging people to try Ask.com as part of our Google Free Fridays in July. But why is it happening on a Monday? Because I’m a day behind, as I explained last Friday. Shush, you! What’s that? Why do we hate Google so much to be promoting Google Free Fridays? We don’t, silly. See my past post on the concept. The short story is, understanding alternatives is good, because there might be something better, or you might want to be reassured you’re already making the correct choice.

Below, a guide to Ask. Similar to the AOL search guide I did our AOL day, there’s some light comparison to Google, not as a definitive look at strength and weaknesses but instead to give you a feel on how the two differ.

Web Search

One of the best reasons to consider Ask over Google is that it operates an entirely different crawler and ranking system than Google uses. This means Ask will provide a unique and different "voice" than Google has.

A better voice? Sometimes, sometimes not. It’s like asking if one movie critic is better than another. Sometimes you may agree with one critic’s review, but another time you might find them wide of the mark. So too, with search engines. But it’s to the searcher’s advantage to have those many voices, for when you want alternatives.

Remember, we’ve had studies showing that when you do the same search across most of the major search engines, they have radically different results. Dogpile: Search Results On Major Engines Diverging covers another one that came out last month. So been searching your heart out at Google with no luck? It could be taking your original query over to Ask might have given you an answer directly because of Ask’s different voice.

By the way, many are aware that the ranking system at Google is called PageRank. Well, actually, it’s not. What Is Google PageRank? A Guide For Searchers & Webmasters from me covers how PageRank is just one part of Google’s ranking system. But it’s a catchy name, and one good catchy name deserves another. So at Ask, they use ExpertRank.

ExpertRank isn’t just a name. Ask actually does something different than what the other major search engines do. With the rest (to my understanding, from having talked to them in the past), they look at all the links from across the web to determine which are important, then they use those values as part of the ranking process (this is what Google calls PageRank).

With Ask’s ExpertRank, when you do a search, they examine the linkage patterns only within the documents that matched the words and concepts you searched for originally. Then they look at the linkage within this group, as part of the ranking process. The idea is that they don’t count links from documents that are off-topic, so they’ll have better results.

That’s the argument. The counter-argument is that it doesn’t matter if you count all the links from across the web first, as long as you then get subject-specific through the use of anchor text and on-the-page content analysis. In addition, I’ve long felt that the big Google Florida Update that concerned so many people in 2003 was due to Google doing some analysis only within retrieved pages similar to Ask.

By the way, ExpertRank was previously known as Teoma — as in the Teoma technology that Ask acquired as part of getting the Teoma search engine in 2001. The Teoma search engine was retired in February 2006, and the technology was then rebranded ExpertRank. That’s the same month Ask also retired its Jeeves mascot and the Jeeves portion of its former name, Ask Jeeves, to instead become Ask.com.

Finally, don’t get too used to ExpertRank. Later this year, Ask should be replacing it with its new Edison technology (and more here: Ask.com’s Usability Architect: Exclusive Interview With Michael Ferguson).

Blended Search: Ask3D

Search at Ask, and you’ll get a dramatic difference when compared to Google or the other major search engines. Consider a search for one of the scariest beasts known, the potato bug. OK, maybe one of the scariest things to a kid growing up in Southern California.

Over at Google, potato bug gives you some pictures at the top of the page, then web page results, then some suggestions that you might also want to search for topics such as the Jerusalem cricket (it’s real name), along with other popular Southern California insects like "rolly polly bug" or "stink bug."

The images coming at the top of the page are part of Google’s new Universal Search (see Google 2.0: Google Universal Search), a system designed to automatically blend listings from the web along with those from specialized search resources from news, video, local, book and image search databases.

Ask also has a new system of blended search, called Ask3D (see Ask Relaunches: Now "Ask 3D"). Whereas you might overlook Google’s blending (where the approach is more conservative, in part to keep users from being shocked), Ask gets in your face in a good way with a dramatically different presentation model.

Back to the potato bug search, this time at Ask. You’ll see the page is divided into three panels or columns. Amazingly for Ask, these panels lack catchy names (the company, as you’ll see as you read on, gives practically all of its features unique names. It’s actually useful for identifying them, of course).

The left panel could be called the Query Panel. That’s because it gives you a search box along with some query refinement options. Perhaps you’d like to drill into more specific searches such as History of Potato Bug or Colorado Potato Bug. Perhaps you’d like to expand your search in other areas, such as Jerusalem Cricket. Perhaps there are some related names, such as Rolly Polly, that you might want to try. Ask suggests these and more, going beyond Google in this case and to me, with a nicer, cleaner presentation. By the way, Ask has a name for this refinement: Zoom Related Search.

The middle column is the largest one and could be called the Results Panel. That’s because, well, it’s where you see the results. For this query, as with Google, you get a picture right at the top. However, unlike Google, that’s part of a neat, clean and impressive Smart Answers box that gives you facts compiled from various resources.

As you look further down, you’ll see web search results similar to what you’d get at Google. However, there will be little binocular icons (and see here) next to many of them. Hover over those with your mouse, and you’ll get a nice image preview of the site you’re visiting, as well as warnings if plug-ins like Flash are needed or if the visiting the site will cause pop-up windows to appear.

Finally, look to the right panel. This could be called the Blending Panel. That’s because this is where Ask blends results from other search databases it has, such as news or video. In this case, the column starts by showing image search results, and you can hover to easily make any of the images that appear there larger. You then get a dictionary link, and then some links from blog search results further down.

Exactly what you get in that right panel will vary from search to search. Morph & In-line functions: The power behind the panels from the Ask.com Blog is a recent post filled with examples of it working well and some of the many databases that it taps into. For some balance, London Car Bombs: The Big Fat Search Failure from me is a recent post where I felt it could do better. "Morph," by the way, is the name of Ask’s algorithm used to pick-and-choose which vertical search results within that third pane. So it’s really Ask’s Morph versus Google’s Universal Search, when it comes to blending – while Ask3D is actually the name of the interface. But so far, Ask3D is also turning into a synonym for Morph.

Ask’s Specialized Search Engines

I’ve covered that Ask’s Morph will make listings from its specialized search engines (also called vertical search engines) appear in the third blending panel. But what’s behind those specialized search engines? More on that below for some of the major ones, as well as how you can reach them directly.

  • Image Search: Just as Ask crawls the web for pages, it also crawls to build its own unique image search engine. That means it has a unique image search "voice," as opposed to Google. Unlike Google, Ask will let you find BMP files in addition to JPG, GIF and PNG. Unlike Google, you cannot find grayscale images in addition to narrowing to color or black-and-white. But one more plus for ask. Need a "buddy" icon for all those social sites out there, such as perhaps our Sphinn? Select that option from the drop-down boxes at the top of the page, and you get square images in typical buddy icon proportions. Here, go be Optimus Prime.
     
  • Ask City / Local Search: Back in December, Ask City Launches Amid High Expectations from us covered how Ask City pulls in local information from variety of resources that make it one of the top sites to consider if you’re seeking local information. It’s especially focused on helping you find local businesses, events, movies and maps. I like the "Snapshot" icons that appear at the bottom of maps that display listings that have been found. Click on those, and you save your map — plus the search results. Need an example of a local search at Ask? Here are some bars in Newport Beach, in case you’re still not over Marissa’s death on The OC. Note how you can also narrow to neighborhood. That’s nice, though none of the neighborhoods listed in this case are Newport Beach neighborhoods (no Balboa, no Corona del Mar). Instead, it’s mostly neighborhoods from neighboring Huntington Beach that get listed. Another cool feature is the ability to simply draw around an area you’re interested in, then search in that area. Ask has plenty of screenshots explaining this feature here.
     
  • Ask Maps: While maps are part of Ask City, you can also go to a dedicated mapping area. Things that are cool? Right click to mark a location you see, then right click to mark another location, and you can get directions without needing exact addresses. Feel like walking? Ask remains the only major search engine that gives you walking directions, to the best of my memory. Put your "pin" in the wrong place? Pick it up, move it elsewhere, and the directions recalculate.
     
  • Ask News: Yes, you can find news with Ask. Ah, but what resources are included? Like Google and Yahoo and others, no list is provided. But it is far more than simply tapping into wire services.
     
  • Ask Blog & Feed Search: Yet another unique search voice from Ask, this time to search against blog and feed content. By default, you do searches against posts, ranked by relevance but with a time component added as well, to try and give you the most relevant and recent information. You can also sort purely by most recent or by popularity, which includes (among several factors) the number of readers to a particular blog via Ask-owned Bloglines. See a post you like? There’s a drop-down box that lets you subscribe to the blog the post is from via several popular services. You can read more about the service from Ask here.
     
  • Ask Video: Hover over a video, and watch it start to quietly play. You also get a video search voice different from Google, albeit one that Ask has borrowed, since its video search is powered by Blinkx.
     
  • Ask Shopping: Yet another search voice, this time shopping, and borrowed once again. But here, Ask borrows from within its IAC family, using the Pronto search engine. Read more about Pronto here from shopping search expert Brian Smith.

Happy searching with Ask today!

Related Topics: Ask: General | Channel: Search Marketing

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://blog.teammatelabs.com A reader

    Great post. I hope that people starts to use a different search engine.
    Google algorithms starts to be a bit fol

  • http://www.resourceshelf.com gary price

    Danny,
    Great post. Kudos.

    Your post does a great job of illustrating what we’ve been up to at Ask.com. Of course, I’ve also been busy working on ResourceShelf.com and DocuTicker.com, which are independent of my job at Ask.

    For just a few seconds, allow me to put on my Ask.com cap and share a few additional features/”cool tools” focusing on Smart Answers, the content that many times appears at the top of a web results page. What I’m listing is just the tip of the iceberg. I could do an entire book of Smart Answers.

    Why Smart Answers? As you know I’m a librarian and one of the five laws of library science is, “save the time of the reader.” In this day and age, saving the time of the SEARCHER is very important. Smart Answers help to accomplish this mission by placing useful info and direct links, from various sources, in a place where it’s likely to be both seen and used.

    A) Smart RSS
    Here are two examples for your name and for SEL. Using the power of RSS to place results (the last three SEL posts) directly at the top of the web results page.
    +++ Search Engine Land
    +++ Danny Sullivan

    More to come and it’s not only blogs. Here’s an example of a feed listing FDA recalls.

    B) Searching for Info about a Location
    In librarian terms, I might call these “virtual ready reference shelves” of useful links, providing a variety of links including the official home page, chamber of commerce, school stats, etc.
    Example: Newport Beach, CA

    C) Earthquakes. Near real-time info. You can also narrow by adding a location.
    For example: earthquakes Alaska.

    Btw, don’t forget the near real-time global earthquake map. Locations for all earthquakes are shown (global in scope) with info about their magnitude.

    D) Disambiguation as part of a Smart Answer.
    Try the search, “zip codes columbus.” The default of Columbus, Ohio is provided but also a drop-down for other cities in the U.S. with the same name. Also, many cities have more than one zip code so you’ll see a direct link to the U.S. Postal Service database to access other zip codes for that location.

    Another example.
    A search for dogs? Did you mean dogs in general or do you want a specific breed. Again, note the drop-down menu.

    E) Real-time Weather Alerts in Weather Smart Answers. So, in addition to getting temp, forecast, climate info, Ask also provides current weather alerts (like a Flood Watch or a Thunderstorm Watch?) for a given location.
    Example at this moment: A search for weather in Peoria.

    Note the ALERT. Just mouse over to read.
    And another disambiguation box asking if you mean Peoria, AZ or another place with the same name.

    F) Ask Jeeves back several years ago began placing inline images on results pages based on the context of the query. We are adding new terms to help improve precision of these inline image results.
    Example: Watercolors of Flowers

    Example: Los Angeles Angels logos

    G) Some Smart Answers provide a direct answer along with a link to get more.
    Example: Market Cap KO (Coca-Cola)

    Example: Best Actor 1972 Oscars

    I could go on listing many many more but we can save that for another time. :-)

    And a couple of my favorite features.

    First, each entry on an Ask Blog and Feed search results page offers both direct links to subscribe to the feed using Bloglines and a number of other services. You’ll also find direct links to share the post using digg, del.icio.us, Reddit, etc.

    Finally, try a search for a music group or solo performer. Many of the results include an option (look in the right pane) to listen to a small portion of some of their most popular tracks directly from the results page. This is in addition to a Smart Answer at the top of the page.
    Example: Rolling Stones
    Example: No Doubt

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