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Ask.com Is At It Again

Today, Ask.com launches a few new features, including an "upgrade" to the speed and relevance of their search engine.

I particularly like the new (still in beta) Q&A feature. Based on any query typed, it returns what is essentially a real time FAQ based on questions and conversations being ask around that topic. Searches I performed (such as "flat panel tv") were a bit erratic. Most of the questions returned were about how to install a flat panel tv and not about which brands are best, or if Plasma or LCD makes for a better flat panel. But then again, maybe my expectations are wrong and that is really what the conversations for that topic really are.

I’m a big fan of Ask and their focus on search. This commercial by Ask really does a great job of distinguishing it from Google.

Changing Search Behavior With SpaceTime

A few weeks ago, I posted about the great things Ask.com is doing. (Read here.) Personally, I think it’s a great demonstration of where search should be going.

Now enter an application called SpaceTime. It’s not specific to search engines as it is more like a new method for browsing the web as a whole. But the demo does show how searching Google would be different using their application. It certainly have a wow factor, and changes browsing to be a more iTunes like experience. (Gord Hotchkiss has a good review also.)

While it is certainly novel, it won’t catch on. Search behavior is getting very ingrained now. Any new search experience has to so greatly improve upon the previous in order for people to put forth the effort to actually change. That is why Windows users will continue to use Windows instead of switching to a Mac. Yes, the Mac OS is better than Windows Vista can ever dream of being. But the benefit a Mac is still less than the the perceived trouble of making the change. It would cause a consumer to learn a new way of doing things when maybe the current way isn’t so terrible.

SpaceTime is too large a leap and would require changing too many ingrained behaviors by the general consumer for it to be taken seriously. That is why I think Ask.com is moving in the right direction. It’s a big step forward, but builds upon what general consumers are already used to.

What Has Your Search Engine Done For You?

While I was attending SES Chicago in December, this video was displayed at one of the Orion Panels.

It’s a great commerical that shows where search is going — more toward a helpful, portal-type interface. Frankly, I think Ask3D kicks Google’s Universal Search in the junk.

While I’m on an Ask.com lovefest, they recently posted a wrap-up of what they have done this past year. Worth a quick read to see how far Ask has come.

What Search Engines Can Learn From Supermarkets

In a poll released in early May by Harris Interactive, consumers rated which industries they felt were doing a good (or bad) job of serving their consumers.

Supermarkets ranked number one in terms of consumer satisfaction with 92% of respondents saying supermarkets were doing a good job, as opposed to 8% who didn’t. Computer hardware companies were second with an 84% favorable to 10% unfavorable ratio.

Search engines held a respectable 7th place with 79% favorable and 11% unfavorable. (Not surprisingly, Tobacco and Oil companies came in last with two out of every three people saying they did a poor job.)

What can a search engine learn from a supermarket? Categorization.

When you walk into a grocery store you are presented many aisles – items divided in categories. Like foodstuffs are put together with signs in each aisle telling customers what is there. The end of each aisle has other items that could be related or just sale items. In search terms, I think of those as the pay-per-click listings. Easy to skip if you want, but sometimes very helpful.

Search engines have failed to grasp this concept. Most engines present information in a single, long list that spans many pages. That would be the equivalent of a grocery store having a single, long aisle. Shoppers would find that tedious and unhelpful, yet search engines have stuck to that very motif for years.

Search professionals fight for the first 10 spots for any keyword search. Statistics show that most searchers don’t view results on the second page. That makes sense, if you think about it. People are looking at what is up front, even if it is not particular relevant.

If I was a producer, I would want my products at the very front of the aisle because I know that the things up front would tend to be noticed more, even if they weren’t relevant to what the customer really wanted.

Look at this research by Thorsten Joachims, et al., at Cornell University [Link to PDF] and perfectly summed up by Jakob Nielson. After typing in a search query, a majority of searchers clicked the very first link returned even if it was not relevant.

This is why categorization becomes important.

Teoma beat everyone with this concept with their Results, Refine, and Resources method of listing results. While I would argue the results of the refine and resources are not always helpful, they have the right idea. They are trying to find ways to present relevant information to their users in a way that is also quick to browse – just like the signs hanging in the supermarket aisle.

Zoom with Jeeves
In late May, Ask Jeeves introduced Zoom, which they describe as the "next-generation related-search tool that gives users suggestions to narrow or expand their searches." They also claim it is the only search technology that clusters the web into topical communities in real-time.

It displays three sets of related results on the right side of the page next to the search listings. The first set lets you "Zoom in" or narrow your search, the next set lets you "Zoom out" by offering listings that are wider but still conceptually related, while the third and least useful of the sets offers names of people that are related to the original search.

I have also had mixed results with Ask Jeeves’ Zoom tool. But I applaud the effort and hope it blossoms and becomes more wide spread. Hopefully over time, they will spend as much time refining their categorization tools as they spend on their ranking algorithms. Then search engines will be more useful than supermarkets.