Ask.com revamps search engine

Ask.com is unveiling major enhancements to its search algorithms and user interface

Ask.com is making another major attempt to attract more people to its search engine, as its years-long, unsuccessful struggle to boost its usage market share continues.

On Tuesday, Ask.com will make a big splash with what it calls major enhancements to its search algorithms and user interface, with the hopes that these improvements will give its user base a substantial push.

Despite a steady stream of upgrades and generally favorable reviews from industry experts, Ask.com routinely ranks as either last or next-to-last among the five major search engines in the U.S.

This has been a source of dismay for company officials, who over the years have expressed frustration at a usage market share that they don't believe corresponds with the quality of the Ask.com search engine.

For example, in April, U.S. users entered 5.1 percent of their queries on Ask.com, a virtual tie with the 5 percent attained by Time Warner, which includes AOL, according to comScore Networks.

The closes competitor, Microsoft, more than doubled Ask.com's share with 10.3 percent, while the top two providers are worlds away: Yahoo with almost 27 percent and Google with almost 50 percent.

In total numbers, this means that in April Ask.com handled 376 million queries to Google's 3.6 billion.

More concerning is that the situation is worse today than in July 2005. Back then, Ask.com's share was 6.1 percent. Between then and now, Ask.com, Yahoo, Microsoft and Time Warner have lost share at Google's expense, which had a 36.5 percent share at the time.

However, with the debut of Ask3D on Tuesday, Ask.com, which is owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp., expects the tide to turn.

The most visible highlight of Ask3D, which now powers the company's main search site, is a 3-panel layout. Suggestions to expand and refine queries appear on the left-hand column and results from specialty engines on the right-hand column. The traditional search results list sits in the center column.

On the backend, algorithmic improvements will produce more precise results, particularly from the specialty engines column, Ask.com officials said. The idea is to complement the core list of Web sites with links to relevant news articles, video clips, images, digital songs, weather information, blog postings, local business listings, entertainment events information and the like.

The specialty engines tapped for each query are decided on a case-by-case basis by Ask.com. Some queries may trigger links to digital songs and video clips, while others may generate links to news articles and blog postings in the right-hand column.

The ultimate goal of Ask3D is to cut down on the frustrating trial-and-error method of searching, by delivering in a single results page what Ask.com considers to be the most relevant results and query-refinement tools.

All of Ask.com's major rivals have been tweaking their search engines in order to provide a variety of relevant links in the first page of results. Most recently, Google unveiled its Universal Search project, a push to integrate results from a variety of its search engines on its main Google.com site.

Search engine usage studies consistently have shown that most users never venture beyond the first page of results, and that many don't know that providers like Google and the others offer specialty engines to look for news, images, videos and the like.

The enhancements in Ask3D will be familiar to those who tested AskX.com, which the company quietly put up in December to try out and preview.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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