Posted July 27, 2010 11:36 am by with 1 comment

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Ask has always been the red-headed stepchild of the search industry. It’s always lurking in the shadows as the #4 search engine and usually gets a mention in search share only if there was significant up or down movement. Accounting has the Big 4 but search only has the Big 3 which is soon to be the Big 2 ½ or something once bing and Yahoo fully consummate their relationship. Ask is usually not included in those talks but is making changes to differentiate itself and hopefully make more of a splash in that area. The key to that hope: good ol’ fashioned human beings!

The Ask blog reports

Today we’ve officially launched the public beta for the new, which combines our proprietary answers technology (specifically tailored to extract questions and answers from the Web) with the human insight of the thriving community drawn from our 87 million monthly uniques. Now available on an invite-only basis (you can request your invite here), the capability to pose questions to real people is now possible for those complex, subjective and/or time-sensitive queries that, no matter how advanced, computers simply can’t address.

That means that is now uniquely able to offer the most comprehensive and convenient approach to getting answers, combining pages and people to help users find the answers to all questions – even questions for which no answer is published online.

In the search world there may just be a place for this kind of service if it can catch on with people who are ‘blue text link trained’ like myself. In this age of social media and trusting sources that reach far beyond our truly trusted circle of friends (be that a good or bad thing, it still is) there may be more of an acceptance of this approach.

Mashable’s Jennifer Van Grove sums up the improvements for you

The beta offering is a product of four new features: a completely overhauled look with a focus on highlighting trending questions from the community, semantic search with answers displayed on the page, a large Q&A database and a user community element that targets members for answering questions based on their areas of expertise. The latter somewhat mirrors Aardvark’s formula for finding answers to user questions, and is initiated when users click the “Ask the Community” button on the right-hand side of the results page.

Even if this Q & A approach seems to be somewhat antiquated it could have some legs if for no other reason than it looks different. Once again, though, Ask needs to drive people to the site and in the past their approach has been mass advertising pushes that come on real strong then disappear. There has been very little attempt to keep the Ask brand in the mind of the searcher in a way to help them possibly convert from Google or somewhere else to the new Ask.

I have always hoped that Ask would put together something that was worthy of challenging bing and Yahoo! to at least push them a bit. Whether this approach is the answer certainly is a big TBD.

If it’s not the answer then the next question has to be, is there a place for Ask at the search table or is it time to move on and look for someone else to challenge the Big 3 (or 2 1/8 or whatever it’s going to be)?

Your thoughts?

  • I wonder about Ask – I used to use it a lot back in the day, but it seemed to lose its way and never reappeared on my radar. Google has long since replaced it as the lookup tool of choice. I am not convinced it has a long-term place in the search industry because of new initiatives such as those by Wolphram Alpha and its beta widgets. This new approach could yield much better discovery engines than Ask could ever hope to achieve with human input, although Ask could become an input to the true meta/semantic engines that may appear. The volume of data is exploding, and a finite pool of people don’t scale. Mahalo is a human-based search engine, and has a niche – if Ask goes down this route there may be a place, or an opportunity form M&A later.