You may recall my interview with Gary Flake, which ran earlier this month. I titled that “A Frank Interview With…” and mentioned that it would be one of a series, and just to show I’m not slacking off, here’s the second edition.
This time our victim is Jim Lanzone, Senior Vice President & General Manager of Ask.com. I’ve known Jim for quite a while, and always appreciated his passion for defending, well, the underdog. Read on to see what I mean…..
Google recently acknowledged that it finds the approach Ask has taken with Zoom at least worthy of a hire. What do you make of that?
I think it makes sense. We’ve had a lot of success with our product. As you’ve seen with the tools we’ve built over the past couple of years, we’re still focused on core search and things that help people get what they need faster. Relevant results are like the Model T: a way to get you from point A to point B. But you can do so much more for people. Just as cars evolved beyond a box on wheels, search is evolving beyond “10 blue links.” A relevant link was a novel concept back in 2002, but when people are exposed to tools like Zoom, or Smart Answers, they start to expect more.
It’s also not just what you have under the hood, but how the product is designed. As you can see, we place our Zoom related suggestions on the right-hand side of the page, where others have ads, because we’ve found this to be a natural place for people to look to iterate their searches. Iteration is a common user behavior in search, because of the natural tendency of searchers is to start with one term and then whittle their way, gathering clues, to the right keywords. Zoom related search helps them do this instinctively, without learning how to use it. It’s in the right place and the right time. It is fundamental to people’s search needs, not just an interesting bell or whistle.
When I posted on these topics, a number of folks chimed in saying that Ask isn’t nearly as relevant for things like last names or the name of their business. What is your response to them?
When it comes to algorithmic search, we’re far better than we’ve ever been, but we’re not as good as we want to be. We’re in the middle of some important infrastructure upgrades, so between now and the end of ’06, you’ll see us steadily strengthen our relevance even further. One place we lag in particular is freshness. That will change. Content management and quality control are things we haven’t put as much manpower on yet. That is coming. Mostly our focus has been on algorithms and heuristics, and we believe we have some of the best in the industry. You pointed out some of the benefits of our differentiated ExpertRank (formerly Teoma) ranking methodology, which certainly has a different take on things at times. (For example, try the queries “dc colleges” and “bay area airports”.)
With the “Scoble” example, we somehow missed ranking his new page, so the top result wasn’t right (Google made the same mistake). On the other hand, for the query “Robert Scoble”, we have a Smart Answer at the top of the page with his photo. You pointed out that for “Battelle” we did a better job for the algo results, but we also found you in the Zoom related searches under “John Battelle”, and had a Smart Answer for you too. Again, going beyond “10 blue links” is something we are leading the way on. Relevant links are very important, clearly, but we can do more to get you better information, faster.
So, let’s talk about “getting beyond the blue links.” That’s code for “beyond Google,” which has been a very important partner for Ask, in terms of business model. Where do things stand on going your own way past your Google AdWords deal? And do you think Ask can ever break out of its role as a small player compared to the giants like Yahoo and Google in terms of search traffic?
Our relationship with Google has never been better. I like so many of those guys on a personal level, and we make a lot of money for each other on a professional level. Our interest in building our own ad system is straightforward. In some cases, we make more money if we sell the ads ourselves. In some cases, advertisers want a direct relationship with us. Over time, our own network will strengthen, but that will take time. It’s going very, very well so far. Google gets this and is supportive of our efforts because it makes us a stronger partner for them overall, and helps grow the category overall.
We absolutely compete with Google for users, as we do MSN and Yahoo. In the past we have called this “co-opetiton.” I think it’s easier to conceptualize this using an analogy. Imagine we’re the Fox Network and Google is CBS. Fox tries to create great shows that compete for viewers with CBS, but Fox lets CBS sell its ads for them. If Fox wants to sell some of its own ads, either to try to make more money or because some advertisers want that option, Fox does it themselves. Either way, it’s good for CBS because they know network TV traffic isn’t a zero-sum game, and Fox isn’t going away anytime soon.
In terms of our size, we may be small relative to Google, but I think this needs to be put into perspective in a couple of ways. First, as a business, remember that a 1 point gain in market share for Ask (from 6% to 7% share) is a 15% increase in share of queries. The way our business works, that’s also likely a 15% increase in share of revenue. So just one point of share has an incredible impact on our business growth, and I think people forget that because they’re comparing us to Google, rather than to our own growth curve. As I said, it’s not a zero-sum game.
When it comes to users and traffic, at 6% we may be small relative to GYM, but we’re still a top player in the #1 activity online outside of email. We’re anything but small. Collectively we operate the 6th largest (just passed Amazon last month) Web property in the world. It’s just that you’re looking at us relative to the GYM behemoths, who admittedly are a level above us.
To that end, I would love for people to appreciate what we’re trying to do in competing against them. We’re the underdog here, kind of like Firefox. Google does a good job of presenting themselves as the underdog, and MSN is helping them with the way they act publicly. But to me they are both giants. So back to your original statement, yes, we feel passionately that there is more to search [than] the Google paradigm. Nothing against them, but we are doing some things better, and those who experience it are coming back more often. That is why we’ve grown market share, and hopefully we can accelerate the curve.
One of the most important page-turners for Yahoo and now Google, as well as Microsoft, is mail. Is Ask Mail on the horizon? And what do you make of all the new features at Google – Fusion, Calendar, Finance, etc.?
We prioritize by impact to searchers. Verticals like Finance make sense, because people are searching for that information on Ask already. (Our Finance Smart Answer was launched 3 years ago. To date we haven’t launched a full Finance “channel”, but at some point that could make sense.) This is true of almost all informational categories on the Web. Search is the doorway.
Email would be a tangent for us, currently. Ask has been growing through increases in frequency of use, by improving core search and developing unique search tools. Things like the launch of our new Image search in January, which many insiders have called the best in the industry, and our new Maps, which has received great buzz for its feature set, really drive query volume for us. As we move forward, we’ll add products that are “first cousins” of search, that help you organize and/or do things with the stuff you’ve searched for. I don’t want to give too much away here. But I can assure you that everything will make sense as an extension of our core reason for being: search.
Thanks, Jim. Will you be open to answering Searchbloggers’ questions in the comments once I post this?