Asking a search engine a question doesn't always surface exactly what a online searcher is looking for. Just ask Ask.com. They have been trying to answer that question for almost 15 years. Overshadowed by today's search giant Google, even the mightiest in land has not been able to devise an algorithm that actually answers a question with the most accurate search results.
As far back as 1996 when a dozen search engines were jockeying for position and Google was yet to dominate the space, Ask Jeeves (Ask.com's original moniker) differentiated itself by allowing users to ask questions. While others focused on 'keywords,' Ask Jeeves' personal 'valet' mascot answered questions asked. The character was based on Jeeves, Bertie Wooster's fictional butler from the works of P.G. Wodehouse.
In a recent post, titled "Social Media's Smarter Web Rests On Facebook's & Google's Metadata," today, both Google and Facebook are looking for tools in the new Web 3.0 world of semantic technology to return answers to questions similar to Ask.com. Perhaps the question to be asked of Ask.com is if this is really an area sought after by users - why haven't they been able to secure more of a foothold in search engine marketshare over the years (1.14 percent versus Google's 86.03 percent)?
Search Engine Market Share 2009 vs 2010
Doug LeedsWorking on that answer, President Doug Leeds believes that social searching is the way that Ask.com can gain ground. According to The Tech Chronicles report, "the Oakland company began reinventing itself with a new beta service that combines its traditional computerized search engine with a way to pose more complex questions, such as, 'Is it cool to starch your shirts,' with a network of actual people who might have the answer."
With its 87 million unique monthly users in the US, Leeds believes that as much as they have enhanced their search engine mousetrap, putting algorithms together that interpret questions is an arduous task, particularly with those that are more complex.
With the new "Ask The Community" feature, however, now presently in beta and available by invitation only (at ask.com/invite), searchers can seek private answers from the Ask.com community. Acting like a social network, the program routes incoming questions to people whose backgrounds and interests might lend a credible answer or opinion.
Ask.com Beta Invites for "Ask The Community"
During a demonstration last week, Leeds asked the starched shirt question and within minutes had several responses.
And if you can't beat them, you might want to join them. In a possible effort to divide and conquer, Leeds is talking to social networking leader Facebook about an integration that would tap into the profiles of its more than 500 million users to get a more accurate match for who could join the network of experts to answer questions.
If social media is the answer to Ask.com's dilemma, it might be able to move forward in the one area where Google has stalled. With their unsuccessful attempts in breaking into that space with Orkut, Buzz and now Google Me, the search giant has not been able to unlock the 'social media' puzzle as to what works and what doesn't. Or perhaps like Facebook, it's a case of the "first mover advantage" where Facebook dominated the social media markets to such an extent, their company became synonymous with "social network" and hence overshadowed all would-be contenders from entering the space.
In either event, it might be the opening Ask.com has been looking for. Or if all else fails, I think this search company should bring back Jeeves. That mascot embodied the concept of "social interaction" way before Mark Zuckerberg was even a teenager!