Obit: A West Coast Digerati Deadpools Ask.com

Goodbye, Ask.com. You caught my eye back in 1997 as an unusual meta search engine that asked questions to get answers. By 1998, I counted you alongside Google and Direct Hit as shining examples of what to watch in search. You’d dumped depending on others for search results and started providing answers using your own human editors. I hung with you over the years, cheered when you acquired the impressive Teoma crawler in 2001. I was thrilled when you alone among the major search engines dumped the traditional search metaphor for the Ask3D view last year. Now you’re just for women, apparently. No more appealing to the "West Coast elite" or "digerati," you say. You can tell yourself that, if it helps. The truth is, you’re dead. You’re about to join the legion of other has-been search engines, some of which you own or power, like Excite and iWon.

It’s OK. It hurts, but we both know it’s for the best. I know what you’re thinking. I can hear you explaining it to me, over and over. IAC chief Barry Diller bought Ask.com back in 2005, gave both Steve Berkowitz and then Jim Lanzone time to try and pull searchers in by being more innovative than Google, and that didn’t work. You tried. But now, it has to be out with the search product CEO and in with something new.

But listen, I say. Ask held its own against the combined weight of Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. That was a success, it really was. And Ask WAS innovating. Among the major search engines, it was the only one with something really different, really unique going on. And as we’re about to move into a likely Google-Microsoft duopoly, perhaps Ask’s day was about to come.

Sigh. I know, I know. Innovation is all fine, but why bother if you believe you’ll never grow share? Why not shut everything down that’s new, fresh, and expensive to do and just get the most money off the basic traffic you know won’t go away.

I talked about this yesterday on the Daily SearchCast, before you announced the layoffs. That’s because Ask’s departure from being a strong, clear, independent voice in search was clearly coming. We saw the rumor about dumping your crawling technology. Yes, we’ve seen the denial of this and the further denial. But Barry, new CEO Jim Sacka, whomever is left — we don’t believe you. We know you’re just going to hand it all over to Google. C’mon, it’s obvious. You don’t have any heart left in the new organization to be running your own tech. You certainly don’t show it from the top. About the only reason I can see for saying you want to keep the tech is that perhaps you hope someone will still see it as valuable, so you can sell it.

Someone should. I’ll come back to that, when we play the What If part of this obituary. But let’s look ahead. You’ve decided that Ask is going to be reconfigured to appeal to women. I guess I missed the memo where women said they somehow needed a search engine that was different for them. What are you considering? Pink and lots of flowers? A recipe search? Maybe a section for working moms? Any more stereotypes you think might fly? Hey, why don’t you change CEOs again and put an actual woman in charge of the company that wants to build a search engine for women. That might be a good marketing move. Maybe bring back Jeeves the butler (as we’ve all been expecting), but this time as a shirtless beefcake.

You go, girl. You go after the women, but after just doing a panel asking teenagers about search – and hearing they see absolutely no reason for a search engine for teenagers — I’m puzzled about why women somehow need to have something aimed at them.

I like Forrester analyst Charlene Li — and she’s a woman to boot — but I hope you’re not believing her when she told the AP:

Li predicted many married women and mothers will be thrilled to have a search engine focusing on their interests. "It’s not so much that these women have simple questions," she said. "It’s just that they are so busy that they need fast answers."

Are you kidding me? Do you know anyone that wants to sit around and not get fast answers? What, men have more time because we occupy ourselves farting and picking our noses until the search results come up?

Reassure yourself that having a slightly higher share of women than other search engines (you say 65%; Hitwise tells us 58%) is going to pay off in this way. Sure, I know you can dismiss me as one of those West Coast elite digerati that you "stumbled" in trying to appeal to, as you told the Wall Street Journal. But I’ve also been watching this space for nearly twelve years. A crying need for "women search" has never come up. Good luck with that.

Oh, but wait. You’re going back to your roots as well, trying to get question answering going. Rather than have editors provide answers to questions, you’ll let searchers — women — flock to post.

Well, it could work. I mean, you’re not going to be a search engine like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft if you do that, so you’re staying in the deadpool. But there could be a business there. Yahoo Answers has certainly had success with taking questions from people of both genders. But just a little cold water – Microsoft’s Live QnA doesn’t appear to have ramped up to match Yahoo Answers in popularity, and Google shuttered Google Answers back in 2006 and is only considering it for select countries. But maybe Ask knows better.

FYI, you did have a service that let people ask questions. It was called Ask AnswerPoint, and the URL remains here (and here’s how it used to look). You ran it from 2000 through May 2002. That guy you fired — Jim Lanzone — he saw speed as a big issue in why it never took off. People didn’t want to wait for answers (which conflicts with having a search engine for all those busy women).

Let’s skip past the whole "we’re after the women" or "we’re going to answer questions" stuff. Let’s get to the dirty truth here. As a network, your biggest success has been driving traffic off toolbars. Get your Zwinky or your Smileys or your cursors and many other things from Fun Web Products. That’s apparently been your growth driver, people installing this stuff and ending up with Ask as a default search engine as a result.

Just remember, Ask has a really bad history here. At one point in 2005, Microsoft was even tagging MyWebSearch as a "Toolbar Browser Hijacker." Others flagged your products, as well. Jim Lanzone — yeah, him again — did a great job in trying to redeem Ask from that past history.

Well, it’s clear what’s going to happen. You’re going to embrace the toolbar stuff again. I have no doubt about that. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if (sadly) you pick up a point or two of share in doing it. But it’s not going to last. Give me a call in a few years and tell me if I’m wrong. But I don’t think it’s going to last because you don’t build a brand by sneaking it up on people.

You’re also planning to do the giveaway thing. Well, that certainly gave Microsoft a spike last year, but it didn’t keep. Microsoft is trying it again, and as long as you keep plugging away, that might give you some temporary boosts.

But really, spin on new ideas and new plans aside, I deadpool you because you’ve seen terminal velocity approach and decided to embrace it, rather than fight it.

Terminal velocity? You know, when someone or something is falling through the air, it reaches a speed where it can’t accelerate any further. The same thing happens with old search engines. Actually, maybe it’s reverse terminal velocity. You lose share and slip lower and lower until things stabilize. You’re no longer a major search engine. You’ve got maybe a few tenths of a share. But by doing absolutely no work, you hold on to that share — you reach a steady state. Your descent doesn’t get any worse.

Let’s take some past brands to understand this. AllTheWeb, AltaVista, Excite, Go, iWon, WebCrawler. These were all major search engines that pulled back from doing search on their own. But you know, hundreds of thousands of links still point at them. And that means they still get plenty of people who don’t know better going to them, doing searches.

I see this all the time in librarian web sites that haven’t been maintained, a list of search engines from years ago that still get referred to. Heck, search for search engine on Google, and you get AltaVista first. C’mon Google, rip AltaVista out of there (and hey, Mahalo gets it right by including Search Engine Land in the top results!). But AltaVista survives, gets searches, and Yahoo still earns money off of it.

Probably no search company understands terminal velocity better than Ask. They either own or power search for several of the old brands (Excite, iWon, and WebCrawler). They know that these properties are worth about a percentage point or more in search share in the US without having to lift a finger.

So, dump development on Ask as a competitor against the big three. Really, I do understand. To play the What If game, I do think Ask’s time might have been coming. Aside from brand, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are largely similar to each other. Ask was doing new stuff, and even Google was looking and starting to copy. I don’t know who exactly coined the phrase "going beyond 10 blue links," but I know the guy who popularized it — Jim Lanzone. And make no mistake, Jim failed to dramatically move Ask in the way that many might have been hoping for. But he understood search. He has many friends in the industry, not because he’s a nice guy, but because he was passionate about improving the search experience. Search is hurt by his departure, but his departure was only the harbinger that Ask itself would be leaving the stage.

I heard all the major search engines on our Generation Next panel at SMX West last week use that phrase: Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Jim’s phrase. The Ask rep didn’t use it because the Ask rep pulled out at the last minute. The Ask rep probably will never use it in the future, because Ask just isn’t competing with the other three anymore. Ask is out of the game, perhaps at exactly the right time when it should be ready to run onto the field if Microhoo happens.

I won’t cry for you much, Ask. I know you’re in a different place now. I know what makes sense to me and many others doesn’t make sense for you. But I hope you’ll understand when I and the many others you’ve dismissed as the "digerati" aren’t counting you in the search game any longer. That’s because we know in our hearts you’re gone, even if you protest that it’s not so.

NOTE: I left off reading reactions from others until I finished my own thoughts above. Now that I’ve done that, I’ve had a look around. Readers should definitely check out Barry Schwartz’s Search Community Reaction to Ask.com New Search Strategy. I especially loved this part:

Diller pulls the soul out of Ask.com by removing Lanzone, he then pulls the smarts out of Ask.com by removing Gary Price and then pulls the will out of Ask.com by cutting 8% of the team.

Then there’s Lisa Barone, in Goodbye Ask.com: A Brand Evangelist Hangs It Up:

I’m heartbroken over the loss of an engine I loved and intensely angry at Barry Diller, the man who never understood the gem he had in his hand, and in return, threw it away when it wasn’t making money as fast as he wanted it to. This was a decision based on money, not about users, not about search, not about anything other than Barry Diller’s bottom line. This was not Ask’s choice. This was forced upon them and I think that’s important to remember….

If I could ask Barry Diller for one thing, it’d be this: Now that you’ve dismembered Ask and its heart, be man enough to just kill it once and for all. Don’t tell me that you’re “restructuring” or “refocusing” or “realigning”. That’s even more insulting than what you’ve already done.

Lisa, by the way, is not only a West Coast elite digerati. She’s also a woman that the supposed new search engine will shift to appeal to. But because she’s not an idiot, she understands that the "restructuring" talk is just that, talk for a break-up she didn’t want to have and a lost opportunity she doesn’t want to contemplate.

From long-time search observer Tara Calishain:

SF Gate refers to Ask as an “also-ran” among search engines. Five years ago I would have agreed completely. Now, I don’t think so. Had this shift in focus happened five years ago, I would not have much cared. Now, I care very much. Ask in the last couple of years has come up with some great offerings. The mapping service. The packed-with-data-but-still-usable search results. The terrific page preview with statistics. AskEraser. And Bloglines. (Hopefully, Bloglines will go on.) So many great things — I’m sad and sorry that Ask isn’t staying in the game.

Finally, ironically, where Barry Diller’s business motives are getting most of the blame, Diller himself might lose control of Ask-ower IAC by next week.

Related Topics: Ask: Ask 3D | Ask: Business Issues | Ask: General | Channel: Search Marketing | Stats: History

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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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