revamps search for speed, relevancy

/ Source: The Associated Press

Assuming your company's name isn't a verb synonymous with looking things up online, how do you get Web surfers to not just try your search engine, but also frequent it?

For Oakland, Calif.-based, part of the answer may lie in improving the speed and relevance of search results. Ask believes it has taken steps in that direction as part of a new look it rolled out Monday.

Ask, which is owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp, encountered the repeat-visitor problem after launching a version of its search engine dubbed "Ask 3D" in June 2007. With Ask 3D, the site moved away from the traditional method of showing search results as a long list and instead sorted them into three vertical panels, one of which included photos and other multimedia content related to users' queries.

Ask 3D was well-received, Chief Executive Jim Safka said, but it was too slow at downloading visitors' search results.

"A lot of people tried the site, but they wouldn't come back," he said.

This is not to say that Ask has been losing share in the search market. According to analyst firm comScore Inc., Ask's network of sites — which also includes — moved from fifth to fourth in the U.S. online search market in recent months, surpassing Time Warner Inc.'s AOL.

Compared to the current market leaders, Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., however, Ask's share of searches — 4.8 percent in August — is quite small.

And so, in a bid to get people to conduct searches through the site more often, Ask has been working on improving the speed and relevance of results since Safka's arrival in January. It is the latest in a long line of overhauls for the search engine once known as Ask Jeeves.

"It wasn't sexy work, but it needed to be done," Safka said.

Ask sped up search result download times by 30 percent by doing several things, Safka said, including using an expedited delivery system from Akamai Technologies Inc. to show results for common Ask searches.

Ask also has increased the number of sites it indexes content from and the amount of material it gets from those sites, Safka said. And Ask has tweaked the algorithm it uses to rank search results.

Beyond these under-the-hood changes, Ask will divide pages into two panels instead of three and add features like "Ask Q&A," which aims to give users questions and answers related to their search terms.

Safka said tests of the new version of the search engine have yielded positive results, with people coming to the site more — and returning more often.

IAC's chairman and CEO, Barry Diller, acknowledged in a recent interview that Google's status as Internet darling makes it tough for Ask to get attention.

"I think, hopefully without deluding myself, it will get easier over the next year, two, three," he said, noting that Google's market share might not have much more room to grow. Google already has more than half the market.

However, Ask actually benefits from Google's prowess, since Google posts ads on Ask and other IAC sites. And with the overall online advertising market still young and continuing to grow, Diller said, Ask doesn't necessarily need double-digit market share in order to do well financially.