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

11/16/11Follow @wroush

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the human answers that might take minutes or hours. But the social media revolution, where tweets and status updates and text messages rule, is working in the company’s favor, he says. “Users are becoming more and more accustomed to publishing in short spurts—just an answer rather than a whole page.”

Before it could rediscover itself as a Q&A service, Ask.com endured a few years of struggle, Leeds says. Former CEO Jim Lanzone left in 2008 to found Clicker, the Internet guide to TV programming. (He’s now president of CBS Interactive.) Lanzone’s replacement was Jim Safka, the former CEO of IAC property Match.com. According to Leeds, under Safka, the company invested heavily in marketing and in new ways of attracting search traffic. IAC bought Dictionary.com, the leading online dictionary, on the theory that it could be retooled to send downstream search traffic to Ask.com. Leeds, a vice president within Ask.com, was sent to head up that effort, which worked—but the dictionary site didn’t turn out to be a very strategic part of Ask.com, and it’s now run separately.

At the same time, Ask.com was blitzing the airwaves with TV commercials and became a NASCAR sponsor. There was less emphasis on innovation and product development during this period, Leeds says. Safka left in May 2009, and Leeds was asked to take over. “By the time I came back there wasn’t much left of the product organization,” he says.

Leeds decided to stop spending money on advertising and listen more to users. “It was clear to me that we are an Internet company and that we are going to compete by building what users need,” he says. “We are still number six in the U.S. in terms of the number of people coming to the site every month. Why not stop telling them what they should do and find out what they want and build that? That’s what we did.”

All of the company’s focus-group research indicated that brand loyalists still associated Ask.com with Ask Jeeves-style question answering—and that they chose Ask.com over Google whenever they needed specific answers to well-defined question. “Their intentions may have been the same, but their expectations were very different,” says Leeds. “A user of Google wants all the information you have—it’s like going into a library and asking for the card catalog and going back and forth to the stacks. A user of Ask.com wants to go in, ask the librarian a question, and get the answer.”

From that point on, Ask.com’s goal was “to have an answer for every question that comes in,” says Leeds. He hired a new team of engineers to rebuild the company’s technology. By combing the Web for existing question-answer pairs, “We went from about 20 percent of questions having an answer at the top of the page to about 60 percent,” he says.

But there was still that pesky 40 percent left over. “It wasn’t that no one knew the answer; it was that no one had thought to publish a Web page or a blog about it,” Leeds says. “At the time, social media and Facebook were taking off, and users were coming around to the idea that they could get what they were looking for from other users. That led us to believe that we had to do something to combine these things.”

And that’s what Ask.com has done with its two-tab system for Web and community searches. Of course, it’s hardly alone in the question-answering market: there are old incumbents like … Next Page »

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

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