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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Embargo Over, Ask.com Now Available in 3D

We can now safely report that Ask has a new look and feel. A wide range of media sources are now dutifully reporting on it. But is it news?

Maybe, but some of what we're focusing on is barely worth a mention. You can "skin" the homepage... if you happen to use it, but if you're like 98% of searchers, you never do. So the comment on this post at Business 2.0, that this "polka dot background is a thinly veiled swipe at Google," is about as devoid of substance as the whole idea that a skin is a feature. (Who, then, are the Western Sunset or Tall Trees skins aimed at?)

I put the app through a few paces - though only brief and unguided thus far - and found myself appreciating the fact that I can now search blogs and other types of specialized search from the homepage more easily. Like other observers, I noticed a liberal use of AJAX, which among other things gave me "suggested searches" as I typed. Attempting to type "cupcakes NYC," I got the suggestion "cupid's chokehold," which I think is a nonsexual reference gleaned from the popular Gym Class Heroes hit.

In addition to having an algorithmic search engine, Ask/IAC are a force in local search. Unfortunately, my locale being Toronto poses a problem for Ask just now. It recognizes my location when I do a search - even adds the country to the label at the top of the page. But there are no listings, so all the Tim Hortons nearest Toronto but across the border are listed. Who knew so many Tims in Tonawanda?

















As a paid search junkie I also notice the sensible placement of the text links at the top and bottom of the page. I like the look. The highlighted boxes will get clicked, and they're fairly delineated from organic results.

Query-wise I tried a variety of searches, focusing heavily on local stuff. Honestly, the engine attempting to serve up images in the right panel didn't do a good job.

On an automotive query I not only saw fairly accurate organic search results a la Google, but some relatively attractive ads. It's this genius -- of making the ads look about as attractive as the organic results -- that is the secret to search engines making money, which I presume is part of the point here. Perhaps then it's not so bad that the video results in the right-hand panel were not all that interesting - just general BBC news about the car companies in question. I noted that the top ad on the page is served via Google AdWords (it has to be, as I'm running the campaign so I ought to know!) as opposed to being served through Ask's own ad system.

The jury's out as to whether the re-skinned Ask makes a dent in user patterns after journalists give it the courtesy tire-kick. My sense is, nice try, but does it cook me pancakes? Alka Seltzer when my tummy aches? Or even let me search for cafes in Toronto? Not yet.

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