Jeeves gets smarter

Simple questions can be the most difficult ones to answer on the Web--there's just too much data out there. Search site Ask Jeeves Inc. aims to change this with new tools designed to provide simple answers to seemingly simple queries.

Launching this week are additional Smart Search features in the Ask Jeeves search repertoire. Known as Smart Answers, the new features should help users conduct more efficient searches by providing direct responses to a short list of common queries. They build on the first Smart Search tools, launched in April.

Find the Time

Ask Jeeves' new Smart Answers make it easier to find answers to burning questions such as, "What time is it?" or "What's the zip code for Omaha, Nebraska?" or "How many yards are in a mile?"

How does it work? Smart Answers technology recognizes the intent behind your query and responds with better results, says Daniel Read, director of product management for Ask.com. "With some searches, people need and expect more than a list of ten blue links," he says.

So, for example, if you ask the time question, in addition to offering a long list of Web-based results, Jeeves also requests the location or zip code of the place in question. Alternately, if you enter a more specific query-- "What time is it in San Francisco?"--the feature returns the time immediately.

Questions about weather, airline flight delays, and zip codes work the same way, Read says. Zip codes can get confusing (many cities have multiple codes), but the site simply provides the most popular number first, along with a list of others in the city.

Once the site has answered your initial inquiry, Smart Search technology tries to anticipate your next question, Read says. "We look around and see what next steps someone might want to make."

So, for example, if someone asks the current weather for a location, it's likely the next query will be the forecast for the same location. The site makes it possible to find that answer with fewer clicks, Read says.

Conversion Magic

Anyone who has used the Web to convert measurements knows a conventional search usually points to some relatively obscure sites that offer the necessary tools. Now, however, Ask Jeeves makes many of those conversions directly, Read says. For example, if you type in "cups in a gallon" the search site returns the answer: "One gallon is equal to 16 cups." And below the answer, it provides a straightforward conversion tool for further use.

Plus, if you enter a specific conversion into the Ask Jeeves search bar, it does the math. For example, entering "12 kilometers in miles" returns the specific answer "12 kilometers is equal to 7.456454304 miles." Read estimates Ask Jeeves can already give direct answers to about 100 different types of conversions.

Ask Jeeves isn't the first search site to offer such built-in conversions. Google.com also recently launched a Calculator feature that performs conversions.

More Smarts to Come

Offering direct answers to basic queries is one way Ask Jeeves is working to differentiate itself from other search engines, Read says. And more Smart Search features are in the works.

"We'll continue to identify high-volume examples where we can provide value," Read says. Improving local search results is probably the next project, he adds.

People turn to search engines to find local businesses and services, but not always easily, he notes.

"It's an area where all search players are at the beginning, and it's an area of real opportunity," Read says. "People have become so reliant on search engines for everyday needs, they're naturally looking for local information there now, too."

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