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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Holly Asks Ask to Get a Hobby? [At Least They Didn't Call it a 'Wife Engine' Dept.]

On the subject of Ask.com's latest restructuring, we have the following guest post from Holly Buchanan, of Future Now. Take it away Holly!

--
So Ask.com is now going to focus on married women. OK, they have my interest since marketing to women online is my focus.

“With the shift, the Oakland-based company will return to its roots by concentrating on finding answers to basic questions about recipes, hobbies, children's homework, entertainment and health.”

Um –ok. I’m a woman and I can tell you that I’ve done close to a hundred searches this month and not one was on any of the above topics.

Here’s something for Ask.com to think about – women don’t compartmentalize their lives. Women business owners often use the same products at work that they use at home and vice versa.

Married women are searching for many things related to both work and home life. I don’t know if they are going to use one search engine to search for “recipes, hobbies, children’s homework, entertainment and health,” and a different search engine for work related subjects.

The Pew Internet study - Women and Men Online - did find that men tend to stick to a single engine, while women had a few favorites. But I wonder if it’s simply because she was using MSN as her home page and searching on that, or if she happened to be looking at content on Yahoo and used their search engine. I think it’s a matter of “convenience” more than “favorites.”

But with Google search now being included in so many task bars – I wonder if women will find THAT more convenient.

Will women actually type in www.ask.com to go to another search engine with other good options so readily available? I don’t know.

In the end, I suspect it will come down to two things :

  1. Convenience. Which search engine is at her fingertips at the time.
  2. Best results. Which search engine delivers the most relevant results.

If I were ask.com and focusing on women – those would be the two things I would concentrate on.

Oh, and one other suggestion – “hobbies” sounds condescending. Women have passions and interests. Those words might win you more fans.

--
Holly Buchanan is co-author of The Soccer Mom Myth (Wizard Academy Press, 2008).

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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.

Labels:

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, April 13, 2007

Ask Working on New Algorithm

Teoma and even Direct Hit before that were always sentimental favorites in the race for relevancy. Good to hear they're revamping both technologies for inclusion in a new algorithm code-named Edison.

It's always been the way to build a better search engine company. Build a better search engine.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Search Market Share Matters, or Why Yahoo! Needs Acquisitions Pronto

The latest Hitwise figures show Google increasing its monthly share of searches again in March, at the expense of Yahoo (down slightly), and Microsoft (down slightly).

Microsoft's numbers can be attributed to a few glitches, depending on who you talk to. A rebrand of the search offering (bad, confusing idea, I think) or difficulties with Hitwise's methodology.

Netratings estimates a slightly lower number for Google, 55.8% for February. Unlike Hitwise, they seem to assign 5% share to AOL Search. Whichever ratings agency you trust, it's clear (again) that Yahoo is in real trouble of losing its status as any kind of default search box for anyone. That would spell big trouble for the organization as a whole.

So I'd like to focus a bit further on the danger Yahoo faces if they let these numbers slip any further.

* First, they've spent too much on search to abandon it.

* Related to that, they've invested too much in Panama, which was built *primarily* to monetize Yahoo Search and only secondarily as a platform to bid on content, to lose any more search share.

* Third, search is good.

The "typing stuff into a box" thing is too important a category to cede, no matter how navigation may shift in the future. It is not good enough to say that Yahoo has a great diversified model that will make them money from all kinds of ad formats and fees. True, but it's not powerful enough to compete "unfairly" as a real heavyweight, if users stop using their properties to search.

So how to acquire enough of those searches? Big ideas grown internally aren't necessarily the way to win people over from their Google habit. So how to acquire enough momentum to re-establish it as people's habit to search on a Yahoo property for at least some of their needs?

* One way to get some of this back would be to acquire local search properties - like the very hot Yelp. You don't have to get into unfathomable social search or expensive Facebook acquisitions, under that scenario. There are some growing, fairly conventional, properties with a slight cachet of cool that are doing quite well. Get them now, before the price doubles.

* Next, keep building out those verticals. If your leading properties are losing to upstarts, acquire the upstarts purely for traffic. Then get the AdSense ads off them.

* As stated above. Acquire specially selected content sites purely because they're AdSense sites. Revamp the monetization plans of those sites.

* Make sure to internationalize your search for these acquirable properties, of course. Yahoo has certain major international holdings, but they need more.

* Biggest of all: Ask is clinging to some market share, and would immediately add several "type it in a box" type properties to Yahoo's stable. Moreover, IAC owns other vertical properties that would work to reinforce other things Yahoo is doing. Although it could be painful, there's nothing that says Yahoo couldn't launch a bid for all of IAC, sell what doesn't fit, and keep what does. Yahoo's valuation is currently about 4X IAC's. People worry about Yahoo's executive bloat, but the best way to reduce the bloat ratio is in fact to grow your overall top line and overall traffic, as long as it's strategic and as long as a lot of it is scalable search type stuff.

* Try to absorb a handful of departing, cashed-out Googlers who are somehow going to be convinced that this is a really cool challenge.

* Least likely, but a good idea for both companies: convince Microsoft to give up on search and paid search platform building. Re-partner on both fronts.

* Piss off Wall Street somewhere around Q1 of 2008, by implementing a short-term de-monetization plan across all properties to increase user satisfaction and traffic growth. Basically, spend the rest of this year studying how you can monetize your traffic *less*. In verticals, in search, in apps, etc. I know that's already happened in a lot of places, but try to hive off a little more - your effective CPM probably bounces back anyway if you're patient. (See Godin, Seth. The Dip.) Don't think Google didn't just spend the last couple of years doing that after beginning life obsessed with it. The paradox of Google's gentle de-monetization initiatives is that it made them money hand over fist in the long run.

* Finally -- though it didn't work so well for Lycos, consider leaving acquired brands intact. (It works for IAC.) If you acquire Yelp, don't fold it into your overall plan but rather let it maintain its identity for the most part. Use your leverage to distribute it more widely and improve the product.

This post brought to you by the philosophy that launched this site in 1999: while the search & traffic ownership game is not quite winner-take-all, it is something close to that. Monopolistic-type advantages will make it more likely for people to default to your offering. When you own the traffic 100%, profit margin on monetization is superb. Profit margin on brokering media is highly squeezable. There are some searches out there that neither Yahoo nor Google own. It would make a lot of sense for Yahoo to swallow the price tag now, and begin owning them.

Go big or go home!

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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