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Sorry, Ask.com — I Still Don’t Think You’re Focused On Core Search
Back in March, after Ask.com seemed to be
pulling away from
search to some people, I
Ask "killed the search engine," was no longer an innovator in search, and
couldn’t expect to compete against Google. Recently, I spoke with Ask.com
CEO Jim Safka, who hoped to change my mind. He failed to do that, in the
Safka’s been reaching out to a number of the "digerati" who came out against
Ask after the March news. Lisa Barone,
who wrote about giving up on Ask,
Danny Sullivan’s had a call and plans to write a piece from that. My turn
was about three weeks ago.
I was privileged to not just have Jim Safka on the call, but also the
co-founder and inventor of Ask.com’s core search algorithm, Apostolos
Gerasoulis, who’s known to many as AG. Yes, AG is from the old Teoma search
engine, which Ask.com bought as an effort to focus more on the core
algorithm. Having AG on the call was something I was looking forward to.
Jim spoke with me while he was traveling through Manhattan. I lost Jim
several times while he traveled through tunnels. At that point, I was able
to ask AG certain questions, questions that I believe he could have answered
better than Jim. But to be honest, I was fairly surprised and impressed by
the level of detail Safka was able to discuss, when it came to discussing
the core algorithm.
I asked AG about freshness and depth of the Ask.com index. AG said the
new infrastructure has improved freshness and, in particular, navigational
queries. This is the new
which I wrote about over a year ago. It finally went live at the end of
March, AG said. Edison is a compilation of Ask.com’s core search
technologies, including Teoma’s subject specific communities with Direct
Hit’s click tracking algorithm layered on top of it.
AG told me Edison is six-times as fresh as the previous technology they
were using. It brings Ask.com’s best assets all together to build a better
algorithm than what they had before.
Jim then spoke of "geo-bias" solutions, "news injection," leveraging
blogs using Bloglines, and more. I won’t go into what we talked about with
those components because I believe those techniques are valuable but not
necessarily as important to the core algorithm, as would be freshness, depth,
and returning relevant unstructured data from the web.
In an effort to isolate specifics, I asked if the
May 20th Ask.com
update had anything to do with this roll out. AG said that the
infrastructure continues to crawl and find new pages and maybe that had to
do with it. Jim then added that it may have been a more broad roll out
around that time. Ask, at any specific time, may have 20 to 50 tests going
on. They frequently roll out these tests, so this is what some may have seen
– or maybe not.
Jim Safka’s cell connection was solid now and he then went on to discuss
the strategic direction they have been going towards. Jim started, with no
surprise, to tell me that Ask.com’s core focus is on being a general search
engine focused on core search. He added that Ask.com has the best people
working on this mission and they have an advantage in that they are small
and can push things out quicker.
Clearly, that was a stab at Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, but I am not
sure how he had the nerve (for lack of a better word) to suggest they are
quicker at Google in pushing out new core search technology, but I did not
get into that with Jim. He went on to discuss that he was upset to see that
the Microhoo deal did not work out, as that would have made them number
Ready for the good stuff? Jim said that Ask.com "greatly over indexes in
certain categories," such as references, health, and entertainment and
hobbies. Why? Because most their users look for those categories and they
want to excel at what their searchers are looking for. Ask users are
three-times as likely to ask a question than the three other search engines
combined. Jim explains this is likely due to the old Ask Jeeves brand and
because their name is Ask.com. Jim said Ask will continue to focus more on
those categories and be the best in the world at that.
I was thinking through his speech that these "indexes" are purchased
database and not likely unstructured data via a normal web crawl. Jim added
that to accomplish this goal, they will add more smart answers and improve
the related search feature. He also wants to leverage user-generated content
and they are working on better ways to crawl and integrate that content into
the search results.
I did tell Jim that Ask.com always excelled at Smart Answers and
leveraging structured sets of data. I hinted at getting back to the core
algorithm. Jim then gave me more clues on terminology they used there.
"Triggering" technology is used to determine "what else shows on the
search results page." The "PageWise" algorithm integrates the monetization
component of the page, so if showing more ads for some searches makes more
sense, such as shopping searches, they will do it. He even said that Google
AdWords is much more relevant than some of their search results in some
categories, such as shopping specific. I then asked, “What is the most amount
of ads would you show? He admitted they will now show up to five ads above
the search results. He answered that honestly, so I thought I would hit him
up with the big question on all of our minds.
"Have you or would you test Google organic search results in place of
your organic results?," I asked. Jim initially gave me the PR speech
consisting of, "We are completely devoted to our own search results." I then
blatantly asked, "Is that a no?" He said it was a no and that no, Ask did
not test Google results in the past six month.
That was the bulk of my conversation with Safka with AG as a wing man.
But Jim spoke for 95% of the time, when compared to AG.
I ended explaining that the core search is far from where it should be,
even with Edison in place. I told AG and Jim that I track a number of search
results, typically the longer tail queries, and 80% or more of those results
are not even close to as relevant when compared to the Google’s results. AG
asked for me to send him some examples, which I will do. They promised to
continue improving, and I promised to continue watching.
Do I think Ask.com is focusing on core search after speaking with
Ask.com’s new CEO? Honestly, no. To "overly index" in specific categories
does not qualify as a general search engine. To call "indexing" buying or
partnering for structured content to place in a database and spit out a
Smart Answer or aid the searcher in refining their search to something that
they have structured content in, is not core search.
Do I think Jim Safka can lead Ask.com in competing against Google in core
search? At this point, the answer is no. Does that mean Safka can’t lead the
company in growing market share? No, he may do that – but not by focusing on
what is core to the algorithm. My goal for our conversation was to not
discuss increasing market share, but to discuss competing with Google on
core search. I do not report for Wall Street, I report for the search
To end it off, Ask Not What Is Best For Market Share, But What Is Best
For Core Search.