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?
20 thoughts on “A Frank Interview With Jim Lanzone”
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.
There is only so much real estate on a page, moreso when your goal is to keep things spartan. So as a company you have a profound choice to make: Are you going to offer data visualisations and explicit, intuitive search refinement options to help users better navigate the search space, or are you going to show “relevant” advertisements, and hope users give up trying to learn and manually use your command-line query syntax, and just click an ad?
I like having the choice between the two approaches.
Since Ask.com pitches themselves as the underdog and as being more community based like Firefox, I am curious why Ask does not directly attack GYM’s status as top dogs?
Why not point out or take advantage of the places where GYM actually “do evil”? Offer to delete personal info, email, etc permanently when users ask for it. Maybe even angle yourself to China without self-censoring yourself. Be more open to user suggestions and criticism than GYM could ever be.
“SUBJECT SPECIFIC POPULARITY”…while sound in theory, just is not that supremely relevant for most queries.
Ironically, for some like HOME and FAILURE – those Algos do shine through compared to GYM’s more democratic back links algos.
SSP can be tweaked to bring out it’s full potential – but it would NOT be practicle to disregard the importance of IMPORTANT back links from Sites that are NOT from the same subject.
==> What is the future of SSP?
==> How will it be tweaked to maximize its’ fullest potential?
==> Will ASK delve into Concept Search and LSI Algo technology?
==> Will ASK adopt 84k bit Hardware with Legacy Systems?
==> Will ASK allow an operator for searching /checking Backlinks?
==> As opposed to imatating the Design of Google, will ASK stive for its own unique look/design?
It took me a while to figure out what GYM meant, just incase some else is as dense as I am, it stands for Google Yahoo Microsoft (GYM 🙂
My question for Jim:
Is there any plans to integrate things like bloglines clippings, and saved blog items etc into mystuff.ask.com?
I may be misunderstanding the simple math (wouldn’t be the first time) but I don’t follow this logic:
“…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.”
How does a 1% market share increase result in a 15% increase in share of queries (and revenue?) I understand that the 1% market share increase could result in a 15% increase in raw queries– but not share of queries.
I’m not completely sure, but I think that Jim meant that a 1% increase in total market share, is 15% more than what they were getting before.
In other words if in the whole world there was a market for 100 queries/second, previously they were getting 6 queries/sec before, and now get 7 queries/second, so their total number of queries/sec has gone up 15%. But their market share has only gone a 1% or 1 query/second.
Does that make more sense?
Jesus Houston, that’s a really good point about being more open to user suggestions and criticism. Mind if I mention that back at Google.
Um, hi Jim! Good interview.
Hi Matt. We miss you at the Campbell office buddy! Swing on by sometime soon (preferably during business hours, and with fajitas).
Jesus, we’re more concerned with pushing our own features directly right now, getting people to realize that search is still evolving, and that they don’t need to settle for a search experience that’s “good enough.”
James, you are right. That is what I meant. At least, that’s what I think I meant. Now I am confused. As for Bloglines, we will be integrating it more with Ask over time. Lots to do still on Bloglines.com as well. Bloglines was getting its legs under it last year. This year we’ll start pumping out better features, more often, while keeping the simplicity and ease of use that makes it stand out from other readers. (Btw, we stealth-launched a little feature this week that lets you open/close the left-hand feed pane, like the one in Ask Maps. Look for the little arrow in the margin between your feed list and the articles.)
Search Engines Web, you are probably getting into more detail than this spot allows. But I will be happy to try to answer your questions over on the Ask Blog. Better yet, I’ll have Rahul do it…
I’ve lost the socks I planned on wearing today. Will the Ask engine help me to find them? Can you put up a SmartAnswer that lets me know where my socks have gone? I really need them.
Jeff, since you work at Ask in our business development group: a) No, I think you know we can’t do that; and b) get back to work.
Since you’ve got Matt Cutts posting here, wouldn’t he be a great guy to get to do a Frank Interview?
Go on Matt you know you want to.
PS Matt and John your blogs are both great, thank you!
Richard, I’m not sure how frank I would get. 🙂
Jim, I really enjoyed this. Don’t let Search Engines Web pull you in though. “Will ASK adopt 84k bit Hardware with Legacy Systems?” Sheesh. 🙂
Matt, I’m glad. Come work for us when your options expire.
Rember that google used to be an underdog ( a long time ago? ). So it is important for ask.com to have a right strategy. I don’t see how ask.com beat google in terms of gmail, or google map. So things like finance may be where ask.com should display cool technology.
Feel free to pass on my suggestion to Google. I’ve got a million ideas where that came from 🙂
Audio Interview from March SES NYC
interesting to compare…..
Sorry for using this as an intro…
I am the founder of an immersive user generated content community, we are based in Israel. We have A LOT of ideas how we can help enhance the user search experience at Ask.com, and would love to share. I could be contaced at firstname.lastname@example.org. (I will provide company name and contact info once we take this offline). Sharon
James, you are right. That is what I meant. At least, that’s what I think I meant. Now I am confused. As for Bloglines, we will be integrating it more with Ask over time. Lots to do still on Bloglines.com as well.
I’m not completely sure, but I think that Jim meant that a 1% increase in total market share, is 15% more than what they were getting before.
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Jim Safka New CEO of Ask.com – Jim Lanzone, moves to venture capital firm Redpoint Ventures as entrepreneur-in-residence