Posted March 7, 2008 6:56 pm by with 11 comments

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It seems that some people don’t wish to believe’s “backtracking” this week. After several mainstream media stories were published about focusing its efforts on women, the blogosphere immediately decided that Ask would no longer be a search engine—it was going to be a Yahoo Answers-type women’s site. I reported the same thing.

And now that Ask is trying to mitigate the impact of those stories, Ask is somehow lying. But let’s take a deep breath, take a step back from emotional connections to the story, and look at this analytically.

While neither I nor Nicholas Graham said this, people are saying that Jim Safka claims to have been misquoted. It’s pretty tough misquote someone when you only quote one or two phrases. The AP quoted 17 words from Safka. The Wall Street Journal used four whole words. Reuters, which devoted a whopping 182 words to covering the story, quoted 34 words. Here are the horrible things that Safka told the press:

“If we can do a better job of understanding who these customers are and answering their questions, we will grow,” Safka said. He was due to outline the strategy to staff on Tuesday.
“What this means is everything we do will be put through this strategic filter.” (Reuters)

“West Coast elite . . . digerati” (WSJ, the only source to cite such terms)

“Everyone at Ask is excited about our clear focus and the trajectory-changing results it will deliver,” he said in a statement. (AP)

Something tells me that other people have had worse visions for their companies . . .

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” (Western Union internal memo, 1876.)

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” (IBM Chairman Thomas Watson, 1943)

“640K ought to be enough for anybody.” (Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, 1981, disputed)

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” (Digital Equipment President Ken Olsen, 1977)

Meanwhile, statements from other people (not Ask employees) and summary statements from the news articles make up the bulk of the coverage. The Wall Street Journal opens by saying Ask will focus on “searches framed as questions, as opposed to single words or phrases,” but no one else says that. The AP, on the other hand, said they would “concentrat[e] on finding answers to basic questions” in the most popular categories their users come to Ask for.

Perhaps the most damning was the AP’s opener:

In a dramatic about-face, is abandoning its effort to outshine Internet search leader Google Inc. and will instead focus on a narrower market consisting of married women looking for help managing their lives.

(Is that supposed to be a question and answer site or an online day planner?) Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t former CEO Jim Lanzone say that “It isn’t about beating Google, Microsoft or Yahoo!” last May?

How’s this for an indictment:

The company found that about 65 percent of its user base are women, with a high concentration of users in their late 30s in the U.S. Midwest and Southeast. That contrasts with the wider search market, where women account for closer to 48 percent of users. (Reuters)

Yeah, that company won’t be doing search anymore.

Meanwhile, the rest of the quotes in the AP article are from other people. It was Charlene Li of Forrester Research that said that “Ask has great technology, but it’s just really hard to fight against Google” and Ask’s core audience is “so busy that they need fast answers” (whereas the rest of us don’t).

Granted, laying off 8% of your workforce, including everyone’s favorite Gary Price, is not a good sign. I’m sad to see him (and others) go. But does that necessarily mean that they’ve given up entirely?

When I first got into Internet marketing, I was an SEO copywriter. We wrote landing pages around keywords. The thing we always had to tell ourselves was that people turn to search engines to find answers, and our landing pages should provide those answers—even for keywords like [weather]. Why, all of the sudden, does one search company emphasizing the word “answers” mean that searches must be phrased as questions?

The reality is that as far as we can see Ask didn’t say that anyone who can’t verify that they’re married, Southern/Midwestern, female and over 30 will be banned from the search engine. Ask didn’t actually say they’d go back to question-based search or a question-and-answer site. They said they’d provide “answers.” Maybe the AP and the WSJ don’t think that you can get an “answer” for a term like [weather] or [britney spears].

Honestly, when you really look at what Ask has said this week, it looks like their next step is to make their entertainment, “hobby,” health and reference SERPs better and also begin delving into UGC-type answers. I haven’t seen or heard anything directly from Ask that says that they’re giving up search. Maybe I’m being too trusting—or too cynical—but until the day that itself issues a press release retiring their engine, I’m going to have to say that they’re still not out of the search game.

  • Good follow-up. It shows just how much the media–us included–can focus in on a minute detail and angle stories in order to sensationalize headlines.

  • Did Bill Gates really say that ?? Western Union, Thomas Watson…

    This story does show how much distortion can come from focusing on the wrong things. It’s that one game all over again – not sure what the name is – tell someone a story and then see what that story is 20 people later, you know, from elementary school!

  • Jordan McCollum

    Bill Gates denies having said that. So I added the Ken Olsen quotation.

  • This is definitely a case of the media trying to make a story from a very small angle that wasn’t even accurate to begin with. It’s a shame.

  • PS3

    A slighty different story (and a tragic one of course) but we have had a frenzy of headlines about Patrick Swayze. The media were all over that before they found out what the actually situation was.

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  • Ultimately the media reaction to what Ask did or didn’t say is irrelevant. The proof will be seen at Ask in the coming months.

  • LOL – Ken Olsen’s quote is just as bad! I’m sure Ask hopes you’re on to something with the quotes 🙂

  • @Jordan McCollum, you are right.

  • I second that.. you r absolutely right jayson..

    jimbit’s last blog post..T-Pain – Chopped N Screwed Mp3

  • you r right guys ..