Ask and Ye Shall Recede

I guess it's time to bring Jeeves back from his premature retirement.

IAC's (Nasdaq: IACI  ) Ask.com is getting back in touch with its roots, retracing its steps to when it was a search engine that stood out by asking its users for questions instead of search phrases.

Ask also feels that it can handle the makeover with a lighter headcount, trimming 40 jobs (or 8% of the subsidiary's workforce).

January 2008

Market Share

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)

58.5%

Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO)

22.2%

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT)

9.8%

AOL

4.9%

Ask.com

4.5%

Source: comScore qSearch 2.0.

It's easy to see why Ask is hoping to differentiate itself. Stuck in a distant fifth place, it wasn't really a medal contender. Even if it lapped Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) AOL, it would have had to double its market share to catch up with Mr. Softy for the bronze.

Ask certainly has tried. For one, it recently tackled privacy concerns by offering users an "AskEraser." Then, last fall, it tried to suggest that Ask.com offered better search algorithms. Months earlier, Ask was tweaked to offer a wider range of search media, including thumbnail snapshots of search result landing pages.

Makeovers have kept Ask.com fresh, but haven't made it any more relevant; perhaps that explains why it's moving back in with mom.

The original Ask Jeeves was popular with married moms, in part because it demystified the Web search process by offering everything from recipes to illness symptoms through simple natural language queries. How do I make bread pudding? Does my son have an ear and throat infection? Jeeves was never perfect, but he was always a willing butler when it came time to fetch web content.

No, Jeeves isn't coming back, but Ask wants to make sure that its older female Internet users don't stray. With Google as a paid search partner, Ask already has the best search monetizer on its side. Now all it has to do is outdo Google.

It's a messy job, so maybe keeping Jeeves nearby isn't a bad idea.

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