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June 26, 2008

My Thoughts On Ask.com & Core Search

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Oh my poor disgraced Ask.com bag. I wish I could rescue you from the back of my closet but I still can’t bring myself to look at you.

I didn’t intend to blog about the recent phone call I had with Ask CEO Jim Safka and the PR guru that has won my heart with his wit and incessant emails, Nicholas Graham. However, now that Barry has commented on his phone call and I hear Danny is working on one as well, I thought I’d chime in with a few quick words.

Yes, I did have a phone call with Jim and Nicholas about a month ago.
No, my thoughts on the engine have not changed.

Nicholas first contacted me several months asking if I was willing to talk with Jim. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to the call. I even asked Twitter if I should even bother. Many of my followers told me that no, I shouldn’t bother. There was nothing Ask could tell me to make things right. I was inclined to agree. However, as Barry linked to in his post, Michael Gray was there to act as the voice of reason and encouraged me to take the call and keep the lines of communication open. And I did. After weeks scheduling and rescheduling, I finally had my call with Jim and Nicholas. It was time to clear the air.

Prior to the actual call, Nicholas asked me what I was looking to get out of it. I was honest with him. I told him that I was disappointed with Ask.com and that I didn’t think there was anything Jim could tell me to change that. If we were going to do this I wanted proof that Ask had not given up on core search and that they would continue to compete for market share. I wanted a reason to believe in them again.

The call that eventually took place was between Nicholas, Jim and I, with Jim doing most of the talking and explaining. It seems that Jim told me much of the same things he told Barry: Ask greatly over indexes in reference, health and entertainment because that’s what core Ask.com users want. Research shows that it’s why people come to Ask. Ask has not given up on search. They’re focused on building out their verticals and becoming a general search engine. They’re not going to be about married women and they’re not going back to the question/answer model of the ’90s.

I really wasn’t buying it. I told him that I didn’t think focusing on the research and entertainment verticals were going to do much to improve the core of Ask. That may be what the dedicated Ask users want, but at some point, you need to grow beyond that. You need to bring in new users. You need to be relevant to everyone.

In all honesty, I started getting more frustrated as the conversation went on and it was obvious to everyone on the call. I tried to explain why I was getting so fired up and ran though a timeline for Jim.

In January, Jim Lanzone leaves Ask and Jim 2.0 comes on board.

  • In March, news breaks that Ask.com is laying off 8 percent of its workforce and changing directions.
  • Gary Price leaves Ask.
  • Silence for two months.
  • Jim comes back on the scene and calls the posts by Barry, Danny and myself “horseshit”.
  • For months I hear nothing about Ask, from Ask, or regarding Ask. No one reached out. No one made an effort to talk to Ask’s loyal brand evangelists who had stuck by Ask through stupid marketing decision after stupid marketing decision. And then when Ask does make its return to the blogosphere, I’m being told that my report was bullshit. Where was the support?

    Jim tried to explain was that the reason he hasn’t reached out bloggers and brand evangelists sooner was because he was waiting until he had something to say. In March, he was still new and didn’t feel like he has much to add to the conversation.

    I didn’t agree. In March, I needed Jim to step up and explain that the “rumors” were false.
    If Jim would have spoken up maybe the conversation regarding Ask.com would be different. Maybe I would have allowed myself to believe him that they were still a true search engine. But he didn’t, and as a result, the love and faith that I had in Ask.com left. What if by going silent for all those months you had officially alienated everyone who believed in you? What if it was too late now? What if people had moved on and didn’t care?

    Jim said that they would be reaching out now and trying to get their fans back.

    He had to know I wasn’t buying it. I was practically yelling out of frustration. Susan was Skypeing me and cheering me on to not let him off the hook. Robert Esparza, our VP of Operations, came in the room to make sure that I was okay and probably to find out from Susan who in the world I was speaking to like that.

    I didn’t mean Jim any disrespect, and I think he and Nick both know that the reason I was getting worked up was because of how passionate I was about the brand. The fact is, I don’t believe them that Ask is trying to improve its status as a general search engine. They’re not focused on core search. They’re focused on buying their way into verticals. And that’s not good enough.

    Just because you’re not asking users to pose queries in the form of a question doesn’t mean you haven’t become a question/answer based search engine. By focusing your energy on research and health and all the Smart Answers instead of improving the algorithm, you’re branding yourself as the place to go for clear cut answers. It’s not about searching for information. It’s about looking things up. That’s not search. That’s not competing. That’s getting away from being a core search engine.

    How did the call end?

    With Nicholas Graham serenading me with Waiting For a Girl Like You and then Jim purchasing the song for me on iTunes. I’m serious.

    Is Ask.com serious about search? I don’t know. But at least for now it seems they’re serious about reaching out to bloggers. I guess that’s a start. I haven’t come around and forgiven Ask, but I’ll continue to watch what they’re doing and where they’re going. With any luck, I’ll be able to break out my once beloved-Ask.com messenger back once again. Until then, I’m still a broken-hearted former Ask.com evangelist.

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    One response to “My Thoughts On Ask.com & Core Search”

    1. Tamar Weinberg writes:

      Nice writuep, Lisa. Here are some takeaways and responses:

      “In March, he was still new and didn’t feel like he has much to add to the conversation.”

      Well um, then why was he put in Lanzone’s place? If you’re not ready for the position and are put in such a high authority role, you aren’t ready. In fact, that statement alone has made me lose more faith in Ask.com.

      I’m sorry, but I understand the issue of being new to a position. I also understand that silence is not a good sign, even if you’re getting adjusted.



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