Ask.com is up to its tinkering again with a new a look and some twists on the search engine results page. Dubbed Ask 3D for the three dimensions of searching (don’t ask -- pardon the pun), the renovation comes on the heels of Google’s universal search update. Both offer the same moral: optimize around all major specialized and vertical search services to get first-page search engine visibility.
With universal search, the holistic optimization strategy stems from Google incorporating video, local, and news search results into the body of its natural listings. Ask.com’s approach is more akin to a Chinese menu. Above or alongside Ask’s search results, it features sections of links for news, videos, blogs, images, products, and local listings, along with featured content from Wikipedia, Healthline, and other sources. The supplemental listings vary depending on the type of search. For instance, a search on “diabetes” prominently features information and links from Healthline above the search results, but a search for “insulin pump” just shows ads up top, while alongside the natural listings there are images, a Wikipedia entry, a dictionary definition, and blog posts.
As for paid listings, the advertising’s not as prominent on Ask.com as it is on other search engines, as search ads only appear above and below the main search results listings, but not to the right. Ask is proud of this move, as it described on its blog: “There are also fewer ads on Ask.com than any other major search engine. That gave us more room on the page to devote to content and tools.”
The room comes more from the page design rather than the number of ads. For popular commercial searches such as “fathers day gifts” and “hotel las vegas,” Ask returns nine ads, three above the natural results and six below, compared to Google’s eleven, three above and eight to the right. Yahoo tops them all, with twelve, while Microsoft came in below Ask, returning varied numbers but not more than eight.
While Ask.com might not have the fewest ads of the major four engines, it most likely takes the lead in having the fewest ads that any consumer sees for every page of search results viewed. It would be an interesting subject for an eye-tracking study. Such studies repeatedly show that there’s an F-pattern for viewing Web pages, where one scans the top left and darts right, then scans down and right a bit more. For Ask.com, it means advertisers that appear below the natural results are probably invisible much of the time, barring any surprises with the eye-tracking.
The user experience with Ask 3D is different from the very first characters one enters into the search box. When you enter a query letter by letter at Google.com, it lists past queries you entered with that spelling, assuming you’re not overly aggressive with your privacy settings. When I entered “Paris Hilton,” into Google, what came up were suggestions like Playa Del Carmen (from past vacation planning) and Parrot Cay Turks Caicos (from current wedding planning) with each successive letter. Ask, meanwhile, offers recommendations based on other popular searches. The same “Paris Hilton” query brought up dozens of other recommendations along the way, including Party City, Paris France, and Paris Hotel Las Vegas. Ask.com demonstrates a degree of leadership here, but Google has had this feature in the works since 2004, dubbed Google Suggest; it just hasn’t migrated to Google.com yet.
One of the more puzzling aspects of Ask 3D is its natural search indexing. Several major sites don’t appear to rank as well for a number of searches tested. For instance, for a search on Showtime’s “Weeds,” the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) ranks second in Google but fifteenth on Ask (below the fold on the second page of results). For a search on “Black Swan,” the latest book from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Amazon ranks first in Google but twelfth on Ask.com, again on page two.
The mother of all optimized sites, Wikipedia, also doesn’t tend to rank as high in Ask as it does in Google. This is less of an issue since Ask tends to give Wikipedia featured placement above or to the right of the natural results for relevant searches. Wikipedia, by the mere authority Ask.com places on it, clearly comes out ahead there, but the natural search results remain suspect.
Ask.com trumps Google for other searches with its featured content. A great example is a search for “Deal or No Deal,” where the top featured result links to a summary and episode guide on TV.com and the official site, schedule, and contestant application at NBC.com. The first regular natural result goes to NBC, while the righthand column links to images, Wikipedia, videos, and products. All of this should give the searcher what he’s looking for right on page one, which is the whole point of Ask 3D.
The ultimate test for Ask is whether it steals market share. Ask.com has a proud history of innovating with its interface and search tools, only to find other engines steal these features to improve their own services. Other engines will be less likely to ape many of Ask’s newest features, especially those that reduce the prominence of ads on their results pages, and that’s just as well for Ask. Imitation isn’t flattery if the imitators reap all the benefits.