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August 15, 2006

Giving Ask.com a Chance

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You want to encourage the search elite to give your engine a chance? Invite them all to dinner and show them how passionate you are about your product. It seemed to work for Ask.

During SES last week, Jennifer Laycock, Matt Bailey, Rand Fishkin and a few others were handpicked to attend a dinner with several folks from the Ask.com team. The result?

Rand decided to take a deeper look at Ask, while Jennifer and Matt are both vowing Google-free weeks while they give Ask a chance. Jennifer has even promised to blog what happens when she swears off everything Google and devotes herself and her search entirely to Ask. Finally, a good reason to show up to work on Friday (other than my Friday Recap, of course).

I’ll be interested to read her review, but I know I’ll be reading with a slight sense of trepidation. Though Jennifer is only on Day 2 of her test run, I have a pretty good idea of what she’s likely to say at the end of the week. She’s going to say that Ask’s tools and services are impressive, if not superior to its competitors (Ask Maps, Blog Search, Binoculars, Smart Answers, etc), but that its limited index leaves searchers wanting more and will keep it from mainstream adoption.

Actually, I’m pretty sure that Jennifer is going to walk away from her Ask test run feeling a lot like Rand. Because let’s be honest, we all feel a lot like Rand.

During his Ask dinner, Rand explained to Product Manage Eric Collier that Ask’s main problem right now was the limited size of its index. When techies perform vanity searches (as they do hourly), they’re not seeing the same kind of results in Ask that they see in Google and Yahoo!, and that leads to disappointment.

Performing the same search and seeing completely different results is unacceptable. There needs to be some correlation to what I see in Google and Yahoo, compared to what I see in Ask. Otherwise it looks like you don’t know what you’re doing.

I have a feeling Eric has heard Rand’s vanity search complaint before…


Eric: I can’t stand that! I see referrals from bloggers who say bad things about Ask, just because they’ve done a search for their little site or tiny project and didn’t find the right results. The actuality is that on 80% or more of the queries that come to us, we’re delivering excellent results, that are often more complete, direct and efficient than the results you get at Google.


Rand: But those 20% are the tech-geeks, the influencers, the “tippers.” Those are the same people who helped Google to grow out of a techy, geeky service into one of the biggest brands in the world. You’re ignoring your most important market and the one that can help you to really have an impact on the web.

And that’s the clincher, Ask has yet to earn the industry street cred it needs to be successful mainstream, and in order to do that, it has to give the techies what they want – a fat, juicy index. Currently, a site command shows Ask has only indexed thirteen of SEOmoz’s pages. Thirteen? Ask needs to start looking less like your grandmother’s search engine and more like a Google competitor.

Right now, Ask is a perfectly viable search alternative for nine-year-olds wondering why the sky is blue or who the 40th US president was, but that’s not what they need.

Their search engine needs to appeal to the Rand Fishkins, Jennifer Laycocks, and Matt Baileys of the Web. These are the people ultimately responsible for their success. They are the buzzmakers. They are the faces others look to when deciding what engine they should try out, and which they should trust.

If Rand took a deeper look at Ask and found it far surpassed Google in every aspect and then blogged it, Ask’s traffic would skyrocket. If Jennifer gives Ask a rave review on Friday, people will head over there in droves to try it out. But instead, Rand found that its tools are great but that its index still needs work and users are left unmotivated and unimpressed. We have yet to see what Jennifer will conclude.

The tools are great but Ask’s main focus needs to be search. It was what frustrated me during their Treasure Hunters premiere. The TV commercials, advanced features and sponsorships are nice, but true success will always come back to their ability to product relevant results.

Ask inviting respected industry faces to dinner in order to get feedback and to discuss the power of their engine is commendable. It’s clear the Ask team really believes in their engine and I hope they will take the feedback offered and use it to improve their search. Everyone wants a four search engine world (fine, most people…), and perhaps one day we’ll see it.





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