Tonight Ask launched two cool new features, both innovations based on its study of how its customers use the service, according to Jim Lanzone, who runs the company’s search efforts. The first, Zoom, builds on Ask’s original clustering technology but goes several steps further, adding “narrowing” and “expansion” on your search based on Ask’s Teoma technology. I got a preview from Jim, and while I have not really been able to bang on it, it seems quite cool. For example, a search on “the beatles” will offer “Beatles Lyrics” and “Beatles Names” as narrowing results, and “Beatlemania” and “Rolling Stones” as expansion options, among others. Another feature is “related names” which for the Beatles includes Elvis and all the four Beatles. Play with it, it’s pretty neat.
Secondly, Ask is rolling out an expanded answering tool. Now, when you put in a phrase that might be understood as a question (ie “deadliest snake“) Ask will do its best to offer the web’s best answer. Ask will bold and enlargen the words its algorithms have concluded is the best chance to be correct. (It will also offer any number of other possible answers.) But these answers still reflect Ask’s best attempt at discerning truth from what Lanzone calls “the wild west.” It’s a worthy caution, for when you ask “who killed JFK” you will get any number of responses. The first concludes in its bolded text: “The Warren Commission categorically stated that Lee Harvey Oswald was the killer of JFK and that he acted alone.” But if you click through to the actual page from which this text is lifted, you get a conspiracist’s dreamworld (or the truth, depending on your predelictions).
Stepping back from this, Lanzone says that in tests, the new web answer feature increased click throughs on the first result by 200 percent. “Our goal is to decrease the number of people who come to service and can’t find what they want,” he said. He added that it’s Ask’s goal to keep creating new features that, once sampled, will make folks dedicated users of Ask’s searchers. Just in time, for apparently Diller intends to start pushing a lot of new traffic Ask’s way in the coming months. Should be interesting to see how it turns out. My take on this is simple: Ask is resurgent, it’s got a strong service, it keeps innovating, and it’s got IAC behind it now. Don’t expect them to stay 25 points behind Yahoo and Google for long.
PS – If Diller wants to change Ask’s name to Jeeves, he better read Gary – someone else owns the URL.