Asking For It: Search Becomes A 'Commodity'

Ask a question, and rather than a bunch of blue links, get an answer at the top of the query page. Ask.com President Doug Leeds turned that vision into reality recently when he made the decision to get out of the algorithmic search business and focus on Q&A.

Leeds calls search a "commodity." Rather than serve up a bunch of blue links, he wants people who type in questions on Ask.com to get answers rather than more questions. "I decided the best use of our resources is doing something different rather than trying to do the same thing as others, just a little bit better," he says. "We're not shutting down the search feature. We'll still offer it on the site, but we won't develop it ourselves."

Ask saw its share of the algorithmic search market collapse during the past few years, so Leeds felt it was futile to stay the course. Technology from several unnamed third parties now layers on top of the site to support specific search features. Some believe that either Bing or Google support the back-end search function, although Leeds declined to name the companies. He would only say that several companies will feed into Ask structured and unstructured data.

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So how big is the Q&A market across the board? Leeds says Google gets about 8% of their queries in the form of a question. Extrapolating that from the entire search market puts it at about $8 billion. Google is a verb, but "ask is a verb, too," he says. "It has to do with asking questions. We think when people want good results they will go to Ask.com to get them."

The search industry continues to transform and call out those leading efforts. For example, Google and Microsoft support search best. And while Yahoo and AOL offer search on the sites, both companies have technically turned into portals. Midway through 2010, Leeds began talking about a human-assisted engine to answer questions in a one-click format. Since then, Ask has risen from 25% to 30% of queries entered in the form of a question to around 60%. He says the services should reach 90% soon.

The Ask search result page will have the best answers to questions that people enter through the company's technology or the human- assisted service. The news search result will come from Ask, but the Web, image and video search results that also will serve up on the page feed in from a variety of third parties that get mashed together.

Web search will come from "various parties." Asking information about the weather might trigger a feed from weather.com. A video search might trigger results from Blinkx.

Ask launched a Q&A platform for the iPhone about two weeks ago and will continue to roll out apps for Android and BlackBerry. The service will begin to ingest social signals from pages "liked" or public information on LinkedIn.

Finding the best people to answer those questions will be determined by interests and location. The service initially will experiment with the social signals to determine what questions someone can answer and then move to what answers to questions they might want to receive. In about one week Ask.com counted about 8,000 downloads of the mobile app from the iTunes Store.

1 comment about "Asking For It: Search Becomes A 'Commodity' ".
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  1. Alex Sepulveda from Rewire Marketing, November 15, 2010 at 3:24 p.m.

    I think crowd sourcing for search queries in the form of questions has huge potential (especially highly specific queries). Think of how often we rely now on Wikipedia to get quick nuggets of information on a particular subject.

    Currently when you Google a question, the first result is often from Answers.com which lets users ask questions and get answers from other users. It's hard to judge the quality of responses because often there is just one or two, and they don't sound very authoritative. But at scale and with more useful features, the quality could improve dramatically.

    Naver dominates the search market in Korea, and it's built on a crowd sourcing platform (see link to NYTimes article below about Naver). A similar search engine Stateside could be very powerful if it were built with intelligent checks and balances for QA. I'm envisioning a feature where users rate the quality of other users' answers, and the most helpful response as judged by the masses rises to the top of search results a la Netflix's movie reviews on their site.

    Facebook's question feature might eventually fill this gap in getting reliable answers to highly specific questions online.

    NYTimes article about Korea's dominant search engine, Naver:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/04/business/worldbusiness/04iht-naver.1.6482108.html?_r=1

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