Ask.com Rediscovers Its Roots as a Question & Answer Site-Powered by People This Time

11/16/11Follow @wroush

What’s the best way to tell my mother-in-law that we’re not going to visit her at Thanksgiving?

My college friend has taken over my friendship with another guy, and now both are ignoring me. Should I ask them why?

What do you do if the girl you asked to marry you says no?

[Questions posed by Ask.com users, November 15, 2011]

Google, the Mountain View, CA-based search and advertising giant, may have a 66 percent share of the search market, but there are plenty of questions its Web crawlers and ranking algorithms just can’t answer. That includes squishy, emotion-laden questions like the ones above, as well as detailed, local queries like “what’s the best place for Mexican take-out in St. Cloud, Minnesota?” For those types of questions, there’s just no substitute for bringing real humans into the loop.

Across the bay from Google, in downtown Oakland, there’s a 15-year-old search company that’s now banking on the power of these human connections over algorithms. It’s called Ask.com, and it’s the perpetual fourth-place finisher in the search engine races, after Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft’s Bing. Last year, Ask.com gave up on its long struggle—financed by Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp, which purchased the company for $1.85 billion in 2005—to compete with Google in traditional Web search. Under Doug Leeds, who became CEO in mid-2009 after a stint at the helm of IAC property Dictionary.com, Ask.com decided to transform itself into a question-and-answer service. And as of this fall, the transition is complete: in September the company opened the live Q&A portion of its site, previously in beta testing, to all 63 million monthly visitors.

Ask.com's iPhone app

The change marks a return, in some ways, to Ask.com’s heritage as Ask Jeeves. Early in its history, the company’s claim—symbolized by its butler mascot Jeeves—was that it could find definitive answers to natural-language questions such as, “Who was the world chess champion in 1956?” or “What’s the difference between a leopard and a cheetah?” The problem was that the claim didn’t always hold up; the computational problem was just too hard, often leaving Jeeves at a loss. (Even today, search utilities like Apple’s Siri can only answer natural-language questions reliably within restricted neighborhoods of knowledge, such as the weather.) In 2001, Ask Jeeves bought an algorithmic search engine called Teoma and started spewing out long lists of blue links just like Google’s.

The company continued to welcome questions phrased in natural English, and it tried to siphon traffic away from Google by marketing itself as a question-answering site. But “we started talking to users in a way that was different from the way they wanted to talk to us,” Leeds told me in an interview this summer. “What they really wanted was an answer at the top of the page, not a list of links.” Even the so-called “smart answers” that Ask.com offered at the top of a search result page weren’t addressing the need. “As good as we think we got at this, at least 60 percent of the questions that come in every day are things we can’t answer from the information we crawl,” says Leeds.

It turns out that people are really good at coming up with questions that have never been asked or answered before. So Ask.com decided to shift strategies again. “Toward the end of 2009 and through 2010, we built a platform not just for searching documents, but for searching people—to give them a chance to answer the questions,” says Leeds.

Today, when you arrive at the Ask.com website or fire up the Ask.com iPhone or Android apps, you see a big search box where you can type in your question. If the service can find a definitive answer somewhere in the database of 700 million question-answer pairs it has culled from the Web, it will simply show you the answer. (Question: Is a Granny Smith apple more tart than a Red Delicious? Answer: Yes.) If it can’t, it will show you a list of related Web results. And if those results don’t answer your question, you can click on the “Q&A Community” tab, where you can submit the same question for review by other Ask.com users.

There’s no guarantee anyone will answer your question, but in my limited experiments, I’ve always received at least one answer within an hour. “The biggest challenge for us is how to integrate these two services,” Leeds says—meaning the Web answers that arrive in milliseconds and … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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