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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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