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April 5, 2007

Is Ask.com Deceiving UK Searchers?

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Ask.com has gotten a lot of press (and backlash) over the guerrilla Information Revolution marketing campaign that’s been running in the United Kingdom lately. It’s a 6-week campaign masked as a grassroots effort to bring awareness to Google’s monopolization of search and encourage searchers to try out other engines. Google currently enjoys 75 percent of UK search market share

It’s gotten quite a bit of coverage, but in case you missed it, over the past few weeks, Ask.com has been employing both guerrilla and traditional media tactics to get their message out and point searchers to InformationRevolution.org to learn about the movement, receive a free T-shirt and leave comments on the site’s message board.

All in all, a campaign to raise awareness about all the other engines out there that are overlooked because of searchers "sleep searching" and blindly using Google is a positive thing, right? Google’s a great engine, but it doesn’t have to be your everything. Unless they’ve given you a three-stone ring, it’s okay to try out other suitors. The site lets users easily experiment with a new engine and search on either Google, Yahoo, Ask.com or Live.

The problem with Ask’s campaign is that they don’t clearly state that they, Ask,com, a Google competitor, is the one behind it. Kinda sketchy. And now they’re taking a lot of slack for it, including today’s very public hand slap from the Wall Street Journal. You can’t blame users for reacting the way they have. It’s natural that when they discovered what they thought was a natural forming, underground campaign based around information is actually a cleverly disguised attempt to promote Ask.com, they’re going to be less than impressed. Ask has made them feel tricked, deceived, and lots of other non-warm-and-fuzzy things, probably not the aftertaste Ask was hoping to leave.

It’s a shame because the message Ask was trying to get out is an important one. Living in a world where one engine "controls" all the information is a dangerous idea and, frankly, gives Google an enormous amount of power. Unfortunately, that message is now totally lost on an audience who feels like they were duped by a company just trying to promote their own product. Right now, Ask.com has lost its ability to leverage this in a positive light. And it is users who will miss out because Ask really is a great engine. It may never replace Google as your steady, but for some queries, Ask really does provide better, more relevant results.

To be fair, the InformationRevolution.org site does contain an Ask.com logo in the bottom right hand corner, but it’s small and not overly noticeable. And if you don’t immediately recognize the photo of Apostolos Gerasoulis (Team Eli!), you probably miss the affiliation completely. I really think this was an oversight on Ask’s part. Now, instead of being a powerful branding campaign, it came off as a jealous Anti-Google smear campaign, especially when searching on Ask.com for "google" used to bring up a Smart Answer accusing searchers of being puppets. (Fortunately, this has since been taken down.) Not cool.

I also don’t think Ask.com intended to deceive users. I actually think the extent of backlash they’ve received has been somewhat unwarranted. They made a mistake but they weren’t intentionally being malicious. I have to wonder, if Google had launched a similar campaign or launched a movement to take away some of Microsoft’s presence in the office suite world, would we be talking about this right now? Probably not. We just would have laughed. But Ask isn’t Google, and that’s the problem.

The ad agency responsible for Ask’s campaign said they felt Ask.com had "nothing to lose" by running the campaign since Google is so much bigger. I think the fallout has proved that statement to be 100 percent false. By appearing deceptive, they’ve lost a lot of potential users, broken the trust of existing users, and probably tainted their overall impression in the United Kingdom. When you’re struggling for market share, you can’t afford to alienate people. It’s that make new friends, but keep the old lesson we talked about yesterday. Ask.com now has some major reputation management work to do in the UK.

Without a doubt, Ask.com made a mistake by not advertising they were the ones behind the campaign. If they wanted to raise awareness, then they’ve done that. People are talking about it. But if they wanted to promote Ask.com as an alternative to Google, I think they did themselves a great disservice by hiding, or at least not promoting, the fact that they were the so-called Information Revolution. They got a revolution, just not the one they were going for.

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3 responses to “Is Ask.com Deceiving UK Searchers?”

  1. Erica writes:

    Honestly, I think this is a huge overreaction. They have a very valid point. It probably won’t help them much, but it’s still valid.

  2. Lisa writes:

    I don’t disagree. Like I said above, I think if another company did this it probably wouldn’t have caused such a stir. But because it’s Ask.com and the site wasn’t clearly labeled, people feel “tricked”. I think their message is valid, but they put themselves in a precarious situation with the way they went about it.

  3. Trogdor writes:

    So, Ask wanted to bring an important conversation to light, about the monopoly power Google has, and the availability of alternatives. But here’s the rub: how could Ask have done this campaign differently?

    After all, yes, they should put their logo on stuff, let people know they own it. But … they did. Perhaps not on everything, but then ask this question: if every t-shirt, sticker, mug, etc related to this campaign had an Ask logo / blurb on it, would it have gained the same amount of traction? Or, would it have been seen as an obvious marketing campaign, and ignored?

    I like what Ask did, and while I wish they could have done it better, I’m not sure that’s even possible.



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