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March 4, 2008

Goodbye Ask.com: A Brand Evangelist Hangs It Up

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This is the hardest blog post I’ve written to date.

Barry Schwartz twittered this morning that he had news that would make me sad but wouldn’t elaborate. I thought he was about to take me to task for the somewhat critical post I wrote yesterday regarding Ask.com. Then, a few hours ago the story went live on Search Engine Land: IAC Cuts 8% of Ask.com & Kills Search Engine (via WSJ.). That bullet was followed with another: All Things Must Pass. Gary Price, a good friend and industry mentor, has left Ask.com.

My heart was shattered, with very real tears streaming down my face. And though I’ve since dried them, as I write this I can feel them creeping back up. Ask was personal to me, and those who know me understand that.

If you read the first story, you’ll hear that Barry Diller’s IAC is laying off 8 percent of the Ask workforce and killing the innovative engine, replacing it with a useless replica of their 1996 question/answer model. Gone is the progress we’ve seen over the last year. Gone is the best blended search platform of all four major search engines. Gone is the pioneering engine that Google and Yahoo used to steal hot ideas from. Gone are the ideas we were promised to us for the future, promises that were led and rooted in Jim Lanzone. Everything Ask heads loved about Ask.com has been taken away.

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.
When the news broke, I twittered my feelings and put up status messages on the various online messaging services I subscribe to. And though most of the community seems to feel my sadness, I received a couple of somewhat flip remarks telling me that "money walks" and that Ask was never competitive anyway. They don’t get it. Today’s news fills me with a sense of enormous loss for two reasons:

  1. I must bid farewell to a search engine that I loved and believed in.
  2. I must bid farewell to a company that has betrayed me and all of its users.

I’ve joked in the past about how Ask.com has often treated me like an abused partner. Regardless of the stupid things they did or how much they’ve insulted me over the years, I’d always come back. I’m not coming back from this. I will no longer serve as a brand evangelist for the Ask brand. I can’t support them in their decision to turn back the clock to 1996. You can’t devolve, throw away the trust your users placed in you, turn your backs on your biggest supporters and then expect people NOT to be betrayed.

And that makes me incredibly sad because I know today’s decision is not what the people at Ask.com wanted. It’s what Barry Diller wanted. And it hurts to fight so hard to see an engine succeed only for someone else to come along and throw in the towel for them. As I stated before, Ask.com was personal to me. I stuck by them through the years and prided myself for being a diehard brand evangelist, speaking out on their behalf at any opportunity. I can’t tell you the amount of Ask selling I’ve done over the years. But that stops today. With this decision, they’ve lost me. For good.

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.

Users didn’t want a question/answer-based search engine 12 years ago and they certainly don’t want it now. If you’re going to remove the soul from Ask, do me a favor and remove the whole thing. Don’t leave a shell to tarnish the memory of everything that Ask was able to do since the rebranding. The sellout version of Ask is NOT the engine that lived under people like Jim Lanzone and Gary Price, and how dare you try to market this move as anything but what it really is: Your attempt to pad your pocket at the sacrifice of others.

You’ve won. Enjoy your money.

Susan and I will wear our Ask.com shirts for BC’s Casual Friday this week and then I’ll retire it. It’s time to find a new search engine to back, one that deserves my support.

Goodbye Ask.

(Pictured alongside some of my friends at Ask.com during SES San Jose 2006.)

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17 responses to “Goodbye Ask.com: A Brand Evangelist Hangs It Up”

  1. Barry Schwartz writes:

    Touching and outstanding post. Honestly, I didn’t think this would all go down so soon. I was thinking you’ll be sad sometime in the future with Ask. But it does make me look good that it happened a day after you said I was wrong. :)

  2. Gab Goldenberg writes:

    I think I just met Gary (not sure if it was him or someone else at SEOmoz’s table, when I dropped by) at SMX West … he was showing the Compete info they had integrated to their SERPs.
    This is really sucky, as I’m writing a post on how we need diversity in search and was boosting Ask. Frikkin dumbass, short-term decision. If they want to lay off any part of the workforce it should be Diller.

  3. Mona writes:

    Man, don’t be so sad. I don’t think it’s a pure turning-back. The basic tech changed, and the infrastructure is still there. Actually, we need the Q/A search sometimes. :)

  4. Kate Morris writes:

    You and me both Lisa. I am so sad to hear this, I rooted for Ask for so long. I remember being at SMX Advanced last year and witnessing the launch of the new Ask.com, with blended search that worked. It was to be the beginning of something great. I’m sorry that another big wig has gotten in the way of smart and gifted people again.

  5. Dave writes:

    I always thought ask was kind of worthless, since first using it in about 97-98. Can you blame barry diller? When you have shareholders wondering why you’re dumping money into a clear loser in a Google dominated industry, you have to cut bait and run.

    Barry diller probably uses Google anyways. I don’t see what was so great about ask.com anyways.

  6. Lisa writes:

    @Dave Can I blame Barry Diller? I think it’s clear by this post and others that I’ve written that I do. He should have sold Ask to someone who wanted it a long time ago. Regardless of market share numbers, Teoma is perhaps the strongest algo out there. There’s potential there, and by neutering the engine and then leaving it there to die is doing Ask a great injustice.

  7. Zak Nicola writes:

    I’d guess it will be some time before we see the changes go into full swing. So whats next for you Lisa, Mahalo?

  8. Lisa writes:

    It’s definitely time to start looking at new engines, that’s for sure. My eyes are open.

  9. Sante writes:

    I too have been an avid user of ASK over the past 6 months – there was a nice feeling and good quality experience as well – is it all really going down the drain ??

  10. Tyler writes:

    Wow… Didn’t see this coming so quickly. I was just sitting with Patrick Crisp at SMX West and all seemed well.

  11. oakling writes:

    I used to love ask.com, back when I worked for it when it was Ask Jeeves, before the dot-com bubble burst. But I have to say, it has always suffered from the same problem that it has now: it couldn’t just stick with one identity.

    It has always and repeatedly, over the years, sabotaged itself (or been sabotaged) by changing what the search engine provides, trying to expand into applications, expanding into creating mini-Asks for corporate customers, changing what the search engine does AGAIN, dropping everything it was doing, doing something else, dropping that, changing the function of the search engine AGAIN…

    This isn’t new. It’s the hopefully-last, very sad thrash of a good concept yanked around by a really dysfunctional/abusive corporate structure.

  12. Darrell Long writes:

    Hey Lisa, great post. I totally feel your pain. I have loved seeing all the changes with ask as of late and am very sad to see it end.

  13. Andrew writes:

    Very touching and emotional post. So much revolves around the bottom line for most companies today.

  14. Terry writes:

    It’s a pity about ask.com. I never liked its old style but the new version i loved.

  15. Anonymous writes:

    Ask was run by a ton of loser managers. The head of products was an ex-lawyer from Yahoo. His right hand man launched products that no-one cared about. A key engineering manager only worked at Ask and never had a job out of college anywhere else — so poor experience. The heads of engineering are still active professors at Rutgers. The turnover in the HQ engineering office was atrocious. They would hire and fire people in 6 months sometimes (and thats if they stayed that long). Gary was on the payroll, but with a very dubious role. As a consultant sure, but as a full time employee? Don’t know.

    Safka [edited] up the communication internal and external. After 6 weeks on the job this is his great contribution…to go back to 1996?! Another 2-3% of the company resigned after layoffs. And do YOU want to work for a company that people describes at the search engine for desperate housewives?!! WTF?

    [Edited for language -- Lisa]

  16. Ross Dunn writes:

    Hi Lisa, you know I feel your pain. Perhaps not to the same extent but it was definitely heartwrenching news. I think Kevin Newcomb’s note today on SEW that we are all jumping to conclusions is off base. Firing Gary Price and giving up on their momentum in mainstream search says it all… no matter how they spin it.
    RIP ASK.

  17. Lisa writes:

    I couldn’t agree more. Ask (and others) can try and spin things however they want, but the truth is the engine is dead, regardless of what today’s SEW article wants us to believe. It’s time to find a new underdog.



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