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Ask Morphs: A New Approach to The Interface

By - June 04, 2007

Ask With SkinAsk today launched Ask3D, which, according to documents sent to me by Ask, “synthesizes the best of our technologies across the three dimensions of search: Expression, Results and Content.”

All this is based on a new algorithm called Morph, which according to the reviewer’s guide, is “a new content-matching and ranking algorithm that literally transforms the entire page according to your unique query, presenting the right information, from the right sources, in the right place, at the right time. Morph, which deep-dives hundreds of structured databases, takes into account not only relevance based on source signals, but also previous user behavior for your query. Ask.com owns the patent on using click behavior to improve search relevance (via the DirectHit acquisition in 2000).”

Let me summarize it for you this way: This is Ask, a perennial 4th place player in an increasingly one player market, doing what only a 4th place player can do: Throwing caution to the wind and betting on a new interface, one that abandons the “ten blue links” approach that has dominated search for so long.

I use the term interface purposely: I have long wanted to opine on the future of the computing interface as it relates to search (I’ve hit on it here and there), but have not had the requisite Thinking Out Loud time. Now, Ask is forcing my hand: For it’s clear that this new approach is a significant departure from ten plus years of search interface, and I for one can only say “it’s about time.” We’ve been slowly moving away from what I like to call the “DOS phase” of the search interface, and moving to the search equivalent of the Mac or Windows – a more robust, navigational approach to results that responds to queries using more of what humans are good at – combining visual, textual, and design elements to create meaning. It’s why I got excited by A9, after all.

Sure, Google last week introduced Universal Search, and Yahoo and Ask and others have been integrating smart answers, binoculars, search suggestions, and all the rest for more than three years. But with Ask3D, Ask is trying a pretty evolved approach.

New Ask Results

For starters, Ask has moved the query box from the top center to the left, and added a ton of real estate for the “query formulation” portion of search, which they call “expression.” This honors what we all intrinsically know to be true – the hardest part of a search is often figuring out the right question. But it’s a big risk – we’re very used to having that box up and in the center (when you first hit ask.com it looks traditional, but once the first query is entered, the new interface shows up, see the first image above).

Google would never take such a risk with its entire user base – it has too much to lose. But Ask? Well, it can afford to. It’s in 4th, remember?

Secondly, Ask has abandoned the time-honored tradition of giving away the third column on the right to ads (Ask had already done this, in fact, but now the real estate is well used, IMHO). Instead, they are integrated in the main column. The result is that the third column can be used for what Ask is calling “content” related to the query. This means images, or video, or news, or whatever seems most relevant beyond a static web page.

The middle column is what might be considered traditional “results.” But from what I’ve seen from noodling on a demo site (the real site will be live at midnight EST tonight), when the three are combined, you get a new kind of search experience, one that feels, well, more like driving through real time results, and less like picking from a list. Jim Lanzone, CEO of Ask, backs this sense of mine up with research the company did prior to rolling out the new approach, calling it a “complete transition of how people view the page.”

It certainly is different, and I intend to grok it over the coming weeks to see how I adjust to this new interface grammar. Lanzone said Ask showed this new interface to a random selection of 5% of Ask’s traffic, and they learned quite a bit. The first lesson was counterintuitive: users’ number of queries per visit dropped. “They don’t need to iterate as much,” Lanzone told me. “They don’t have to hunt and peck.”

New Ask Binocs

That’s not good from a market share perspective …unless folks start coming back to Ask and using it as their primary engine, which has always been Ask’s problem – folks saw it as second fiddle to Google.

“Our issue is people use ask three times a month, and they use Google fifteen times a month,” Lanzone said. “We need to get people to understand what is different about Ask.”

Will that happen? Lanzone seems confident, because he believes his new interface addresses some core issues with search results: including site abandonment (people leaving before finding what they are looking for) and frequency of use, which he says spiked up in tests with the new interface.

Frequency of use and differentiation are key – in short, Ask must get folks to understand what is unique about Ask, and start seeing it as their primary engine. That’s pretty critical when you’re spending $100 million on marketing, after all.

I asked Jim about that marketing spend, including the controversial “Algorithm” campaign, which he said was not targeted at folks like those who read this blog, nor does it refer directly to Morph. “It’s our farfegnugen,” he said, aimed at the average searcher, not the tech elite.

There are a lot of changes being rolled out in “Ask3D” (the 3D refers to the three panel approach), and I’ll let those better equipped than I explain them all, but a short list includes a much improved binocular feature (shown above), extensive use of AJAX, including the ability to play a video inline on the results page (video is provided by blinkx, and I was disappointed to see that Google Video is not indexed), skins (the first image above), integration of events and other data, and more.

As I use Ask over the next few weeks my main question comes to this: WIll this spiffy new interface scale down the tail? Will it be useful for all those long tail queries where, honestly, Google really does rule? Or will it just work for the “big” queries like Britney Spears, San Francisco restaurants, and the like?

My other main thought has to do with how Ask is emulating Apple. No, this is not an iPod or iPhone, but it does remind me of the Mac, pre iPod, when Apple had 5% share and was competing with a major competitor that had cornered the market (sound familiar?). How did Apple compete? A better interface, a very loyal group of users, and …. better marketing.

But, I asked Jim, isn’t Google already heading in this direction with Universal Search? “What Google did was a step in the right direction,” Lanzone retorted. “But it was a baby step. There is no good reason why in 2007 why the search result page should look like it did in 1996.” I certainly agree with that.

It remains to be seen if this will move the needle for Ask. But even a one percent gain in share will be a major victory for the company. If, on the other hand, it loses a point, well…nothing ventured….nothing learned.

PS – For more from the horse’s mouth, read Gary’s post.

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10 thoughts on “Ask Morphs: A New Approach to The Interface

  1. nmw says:

    increasingly one player market

    almost makes monopoly sound like a good thing! ;D

    But you’re right: this definitely looks like the search engine from Ork.

    I especially like the idea of ditching the Goo-mold — and MFA’s with some cheap-o discount-for-less BS on it do seem kind of *stale*, don’t they?

    Is there lust in the long-tail? Who will go the long haul? Tune in tomorrow, when nmw reiterates to Vint: “WTF does *search* mean?”

    ;P nmw

    ps: can you see me? visit >> live.net.in

  2. Michael Stone says:

    John,

    A few things that jump out about Ask.com:

    (1) Their ad campaign can only be targeted at folks like us because “average” web users/searchers don’t know the origins of Search, Ask Jeeves, or algorithms.

    (2) I believe this is an interesting experiment but will ultimately fade away because it’s just too different. I do, however, applaud them for trying something fairly radical.

    (3) Most heavy Google users probably use their service 15 times per day. When AltaVista fell to Google, they lost the heavy users first. The heavy users then told the rest of the web and the shift was on. Focusing on “light” users, and trying to get them to conduct more searches, seems like a herculian task.

  3. Fred says:

    I like to see something new and original tried with search, and I don’t think it’s half bad, but I agree that their marketing campaign is pretty iffy. In fact, their webmasters FAQ is pretty much just an advertisement, and just reading it makes me want to not go to their site ever again. A pretty bad reaction from a power user!

  4. marko says:

    NOT NIFTY:

    The fact that it narrows your search *as you type* gives the impression that it’s able query a smaller chunk of the web. Although it may return a more useful result it feels constricting — any phrase longer than five words is going to result in a “No Search Suggestions Found” Ajax-popup.

    NIFTY:

    Right column result of Videos and Bloggs. Google should emulate. I’m all about the underdog but this is a battle I wouldn’t want to fight. Many many kudos to the Ask team, however.

  5. vishravars says:

    The interface rocks. cheers to the team for a great effort.
    The problem i had was i was not able to switch to other contexts like image,web, blog etc.., when i was browsing the maps. i dont know how the geeks missed !! I need to catch up the ask.com team soon !!

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