Ask.com: More Than Just “The Algorithm”

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Many of you have probably seen the recent ads on television and billboards for Ask.com, touting “It’s the algorithm.”  In April of 2007, Ask.com’s popular CEO, Jim Lanzone, introduced the world to the new Ask algorithm, code-named “Edison.” At Search Engine Land, Barry Schwartz covered the release, and included a quote from Ask.com’s Rahul Lahiri, Vice President of Product Management and Search Technology, who offered the following introduction to Edison: “…it’s a next generation algorithm that, among many other things, synthesizes modernized versions of Teoma and DirectHit technologies… We’re also taking a deeper look at communities and calculating the authorities in those communities.”

The idea of using some sort of folksonomy within a ranking algorithm is not necessarily groundbreaking, but it seems that Ask.com is providing far more than just algorithm tweaks to its faithful, and may be on the way to gaining a larger share of the search engine user market.  The results are certainly relevant, in many of the tests I conducted; and I personally have always been a big fan of their mapping system, especially the “walking maps” version which helps us get from our offices on Broadway to the train station, for example.

Google has gained a lot of press recently for their new Universal Search platform, as evidenced by the topics in this magazine and other search-related publications.  Ask.com recently also updated its look and feel, without the huge hoopla that surrounded the Google release.  The new “Ask 3D,” as described by Michael Wesner, a Sales Director for Ask Sponsored Listings, is a “completely re-engineered and redesigned version of Ask.com that gives searches what they are looking for faster.”

A search for the term “health insurance” brings up a great example of the new Ask 3D format.  The center of the page (which Ask calls the “Second Dimension”) includes 18 traditional-looking listings, with 3 sponsored listings above 10 organic results, followed by 5 more sponsored listings.  The left navigation area (“First Dimension”) includes related searches under the tab “Narrow Your Search,” as well as another tab with more results that allow you to “Expand Your Search.”

The right navigation area (“Third Dimension”) is the real update, though, in comparison to the classic Ask.com results layout.  It includes 4 “Image” results (with the option to click for “More” – also included in the rest of the right navigation options); 4 “News Image” results; an “Encyclopedia” area which includes a snippet of the Wikipedia entry for the term and a link directly to that page; traditional “News” results; and, lastly, “Video” results.

Sounds a lot like Google Universal search, right?  I personally feel that this format lays it out in a more visually pleasing manner, instead of randomly placing various types of results in the main listings.  Additionally, Ask.com still allows for 10 “old school” organic results, whereas Universal Search sometimes limits that to as few as 3 or 4.  This layout is presented to the user through the use of a technology dubbed “Morph,” which, again according to Wesner, is “a new content-matching and ranking algorithm that…presents the right information, from the right sources, at the right time…deeply dives hundreds of structured databases…[and provides] results based on relevance as well as previous user behavior (Ask.com owns the patent on click behavior via DirectHit acquisition in 2000).”

Ask.com also provides a nice suite of personalization tools, including a large variety of skins to make your Ask experience unique, at least amongst your set of friends.  All in all, I would venture to say that Ask has a significant chance of increasing its market share in 2007 and beyond, especially if they continue to innovate their technology, and provide personalized results that actually mean something to their users.

About the Author

Chris Boggs of Rosetta is a specialist in search engine optimization and paid search advertising. Chris joined Brulant in 2007 as the Manager of the SEO team, and Rosetta acquired Brulant in 2008.

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