Ask.com Seeking Better Algorithm

I tried to make it work. I really did. I was actually enthusiastic about trying a new search engine. But after a brief, frustrating stint, I ended my relationship with Ask.com -- the search arm of conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp (Nasdaq: IACI  ) . Here's why the would-be search sultan left me cold.

Ask.com has gone through many face-lifts. It began as Ask Jeeves, but after Jeeves decided to start growing grapes, the site was rebranded as Ask.com. Fast-forward through its interactive makeover -- termed Ask3D -- and now it's a shiny new website.

A while back, I saw several provocative billboards touting the new algorithm Ask uses to process its searches. Over the past few months, I've also seen an onslaught of Ask commercials on TV. (I didn't even know that people searched for "Kato Kaelin.") Given its strong media campaign, I decided to give the search engine a chance.

I like cheering for the underdog, and because Ask captures only about 4% of the total search market share, according to Hitwise, it's barely a thorn in the side of the industry's giants. If anything could break my Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) habit, I was willing to give it a try. I even changed my toolbar search to don the Ask logo.

After a few searches, I became frustrated; I told myself I wasn't accustomed to the new site. But my experiment in search-engine-swapping didn't last more than a week.

Ask is clearly a visually appealing site. Type in "Washington, D.C." and it'll return search results, images, maps, an encyclopedia entry, and the current time and weather. Search for my favorite show, Extras, and in addition to images and an encyclopedia entry, you'll get related video clips. As you're typing, Ask will pitch in and offer search suggestions. When you get to a results page, mouse over an icon, and you'll be treated to a preview of the page. Some of the user features really enhance the visual experience, although in fairness, not all of them are unique to Ask.

But those shiny bells and whistles mask fundamental flaws. The search engine is appealing, but it failed to find the pages I wanted. I go to a search engine to search for websites. Anything else is secondary. When I wanted to pull up the Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU  ) investor relations page, Ask couldn't find it for me. A few pages' worth of scrolling through results further made it clear that Ask also can't filter out duplicate articles from the same source.

Meanwhile, both Google and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) nailed the search result right away. Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) MSN Live was basically right but didn't have the specific investor relations page.

I've switched back to Google for my search needs. I do give Ask credit for creating a friendlier page, but I question whether the massive advertising campaign is money well spent. According to the TechCrunch blog, IAC has already spent $100 million on the marketing campaign, which tells us, among other things, that Ask provides "Instant Getification."

Others might have different experiences, but I won't be taking Ask.com for another test run anytime soon. Maybe Jeeves should stop growing grapes and come out of retirement.

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