This blog is based on Moveable Type (MT), from Six Apart. I love the software, but I also have had my issues with it. I’m very pleased to note that today Six Apart announced MT 4, a major new release, with tons of new features. Also notable is the MT Open Source project, which will culminate in an open source version of MT. Both will make MT more robust and will keep folks like me happy. Thanks SA!
Ask 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.
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.”
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.
From the Yahoo Search Marketing Blog:
Yahoo! Search Marketing is rolling out a new feature that we think will help enhance the quality, potentially reduce the cost and increase the value of traffic to you, our advertisers. It’s called quality-based pricing, and it measures the quality of traffic coming from our distribution partners—that is, the web publishers large and small that display your ads.
Previously, you were charged the same for traffic from all web sites within our distribution network. Now, with quality-based pricing, you may be charged less for certain clicks than you otherwise would pay, depending on the overall quality of the traffic provided by our distribution partners. As a result, your click charges can decrease.
“Quality” is calculated based on conversion rates and other measurements of the ability of our partners’ sites to deliver more interested, valuable customers to you.
Welcome to the world of managing publisher expectations and naunce, Yahoo. This will be interesting…
The release is here, from it:
Yahoo! Inc., a leading global Internet company, today announced the Yahoo! Search Marketing Commercial API Program, which provides businesses and developers of all sizes free, open access to the “Panama” search marketing application program interfaces (APIs). Through this program, advertisers, developers and commercial partners including ad agencies and technology providers can easily build upon Yahoo!’s core search marketing technologies to enhance their existing business offerings or create brand new search marketing tools and applications. In addition, the program provides a range of value-added services to help commercial partners gain greater insight into Yahoo!’s search marketing product roadmap and fully leverage Yahoo! Search Marketing’s APIs for their clients.
I missed this Post piece on “googlenoping” till today. The point is to find a phrase that does not exist in Google. Till of course you find it and blog it.
Per the story below, I have very good off the record source who says that while Sanaz is a true star, the project is not what has been reported. Trying to get more on what it *is*….stay tuned.
TC says yes:
Microsoft has gathered a team of twenty or more “rock star” developers who’ve been tasked at building their next generation search engine, a source has told us. The team, which supposedly came together recently, is based at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley headquarters in Mountain View.
We have few details on their approach to the product, other than hearing that it is definitely a “horizontal” engine (so, it’s not limited to a specific vertical like images), and is “very cool.”
What seems interesting as I catch up tonight:
Marc Andreesen, of Netscape and more recently Ning reknown, is blogging. Welcome Marc!
Interesting that Google has let the Times behind the curtain to interview Amit Singhal and Udi Manber, two of the high priests of Google’s most important work – search ranking and quality. Saul Hansell, the author, called me for some thoughts and was kind enough to include a few of my thoughts in the piece.
Google recently allowed a reporter from The New York Times to spend a day with Mr. Singhal and others in the search-quality team, observing some internal meetings and talking to several top engineers. There were many questions that Google wouldn’t answer. But the engineers still explained more than they ever have before in the news media about how their search system works.
Indeed, for those of you who geek out on this stuff, there are clues to a number of things in here. Witness:
In 2005, Bill Brougher, a Google product manager, complained that typing the phrase “teak patio Palo Alto” didn’t return a local store called the Teak Patio.
So Mr. Singhal fired up one of Google’s prized and closely guarded internal programs, called Debug, which shows how its computers evaluate each query and each Web page. He discovered that Theteakpatio.com did not show up because Google’s formulas were not giving enough importance to links from other sites about Palo Alto.
It was also a clue to a bigger problem. Finding local businesses is important to users, but Google often has to rely on only a handful of sites for clues about which businesses are best. Within two months of Mr. Brougher’s complaint, Mr. Singhal’s group had written a new mathematical formula to handle queries for hometown shops.
There is also an interesting discussion of freshness and how that relates to ranking (watch for mentions of “QDF”). Worth the read.