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Monday, 27th February 2006

Ask Jeeves Is Now Ask.com: New Look and New Features

So Long Mr. Jeeves, Ask.com is Here
By Gary Price
Editor, ResourceShelf.com
Director of Online Information Resources, Ask.com

The big news today is that Ask Jeeves is relaunching their service with a new name and some new services.

When I announced a few weeks ago that I had taken a new job at Ask Jeeves (aka Ask.com) as Director of Online Information Resources, I made it clear that ResourceShelf would remain an independent site. The RS and DocuTicker team have complete editorial freedom on our sites and I also have the same freedom to say what I like when I like during public presentations. My live presentations will not be Ask.com sales calls.

Sure, we will talk about Ask.com if that's on the agenda but we will also discuss plenty of other sites, tools, and ideas. To be honest, without this freedom, taking the job at Ask.com would have not occurred. Let me add that Ask Jeeves management was 100% behind this job structure from the outset.

I hope you've noticed that since my announcement about taking the job at Ask.com a few weeks ago, the stream of news and new resources on ResourceShelf has continued to be what you have come to expect from our site. That is, lots of material from variety of sources.

Of course, when there is Ask Jeeves news, we will also report on it and today is one of those days.

The remainder of this post will not only fill you in on "what's new" at Ask Jeeves (so long and adios to Mr. Jeeves) but I also hope it helps answer a question many of you have asked since I told you about my new job. Why did I choose to take the job in the first place? In this case this post is both a news story and at the same time a brief look at some of Ask's services.

SO, WHAT'S The News?

As of today, Ask Jeeves is now known as Ask.com. The butler logo and theme is gone. This is good news. Why? Ask Jeeves represented a less-than-useful search service. As I've said before, the Ask.com of 2006 is NOT the same thing as Ask Jeeves circa 1999. It's a greatly improved service and I hope to contribute my share (and with your help) to make it better. NOTE: Enjoy the Ask Jeeves retirement video here. (-:

Frankly, if Ask.com was the same service it was, circa 1998 or 1999, I would not have accepted the job because back then the LAST search tool I would have recommended, used, or would have wanted to be a part of was Ask Jeeves.

Hopefully, the new name will help people realize that Ask.com has done some impressive work during the past five years. However, a name is only a name and actions and capabilities speak louder than words.

Bottom Line #1
--------------

The idea of pre-supposing questions and then mining the open web for answers HAS NOT BEEN a part of Ask.com since late 2001. Unfortunately, many people, including information professionals, have, up until now, not realized this point.

Changes
-------

The beginning of the Ask.com turnaround began in September 2001, with the acquisition of the Teoma search technology from Rutgers University.

The Teoma relevancy/ranking algorithm is different than found elsewhere. Without getting into a long and technological discussion, I've added some additional links at the end of this post that can help give you a broad overview of what makes the Teoma technology (now incorporated into Ask.com) different. A few sentences are available here (in the "How it Works" Section). Of course, relevancy algorithms from all of the large web engines are constantly changing and being tweaked, but the readings I hope will provide you with some of the fundamental differences in concept.

Btw, as of today, the actual Teoma.com site is no more. It now redirects to Ask.com. However, all of Teoma's power, features, and more, minus one, are now a part of Ask.com. Former users of Teoma (unfortunately, not many used it) will no longer see the "Resources Section" of subject-specific meta pages that Teoma made available. Hopefully, this feature (or something similar to it) is something that Ask.com can add in the future since many info pros found it useful but less than 1% of users took advantage of it. That's even mentioned in this blog post.

Moving Forward
--------------

Let's go back to 2001 (September to be precise) when Ask.com began on its multi-year drive to revamp the product.

IMHO, they've done an impressive job and that was one of my biggest draws in joining their team.

However, let me be clear, there is much more work to be done and, again, this is a key reason why I wanted to join them.

One problem, from a marketing standpoint, is that many people, including librarians, educators, and the general public, have spent little time paying attention to what has been going on at Ask.com.

Why?

Old habits and beliefs die hard and, as I said earlier, many people still believe that Ask.com is the inferior product that it once was. That is no longer the case. In fact, it's a goal to directly involve our profession in making Ask.com even better. That's why your feedback/suggestions/comments are important.

Bottom Line #2
-----------------

Info pros need to stay current on a variety of tools and services. That's one of the reasons we do our best in preparing ResourceShelf everyday. I realize that this is easier said than done, but knowing about alternatives and using the right tool at the right time is key to our mission. Perhaps it's time to begin looking more closely at a variety of tools and resources. I heard from many people thoughout 2005 who said that they appreciated ResourceShelf's continuing coverage of a wide variety of sites and search tools. I often think that search and library news + new reports + new sites/databases that we blog on RS and DocuTicker as a form of collection development in the web age. Let's take full advantage of the wide variety of resources (both free and fee-based) that we have available to us.

New Features, Improved Services
----------------------------------

Before moving forward, the Ask.com of today is by no means a completed product. Far from it. If it was, why would I be taking the job? It is one of my goals to help make Ask.com even better by involving the education and library communities.

That said, as of today, Ask.com is a worthy and improving alternative that all info pros, educators, and others should know about and make use of when needed.

Today's name change is just that, a name change. However, as the butler says goodbye, I hope that the change will hopefully give plenty of notice to many of the new services and features that Ask.com has been building and improving upon in the past few years. Again, this is just the beginning and another reason I wanted to be part of the team and represent our community.

Review: Ask.com February 2006
-----------------------

Let's get to some facts and things to look for. As you review the list, you'll see that a few of these tools started becoming available a few years ago.

+ The new Ask.com homepage (new today) is crisp, sleek, and light. If you had an issue with the way it once looked (too busy) that issue is now solved.

+ The Ask.com Toolbox (new today), located on the right side of the homepage, can help get you to speciality databases (like the dictionary, picture search, local search, etc.) quickly. It can even be minimized if you don't want to use it. You can even customize the order in which the links appear. The Toolbox utilizes AJAX technology. Btw, developers will be able to add direct links to other databases (how does a library catalog sound!) with the release of an API. Of course, Ask.com will also continue to develop new specialty tools as well. What databases would you suggest?

+ Beginning on April 20, 2003, Ask.com has been hard at work developing what they call "Smart Answers." As I've said many times, these are examples of search engines becoming "answer engines" for certain types of ready reference queries. It's only been in the past year or so that others have begin to really ramp up efforts in this area. Let's be clear, most of this is done autonomously and is NOT the same thing as what Ask Jeeves was doing in 1999.

Some Examples
------------

++ Holiday Dates
++ Award Winners
++ Fast Facts: The EU
++ Business: Market Cap
++ Geography Facts
++ Science

++ Placing images from the Ask.com pictures database on to web results pages

+++ Building direct links and compilations to a variety of answers

++ Animals and Pets
+++ Cities
+++ Biographies
+++ Recipes
+++ Television shows
+++ Sports
+++ Definitions (you can even hear the word pronounced)

Folks, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I think the possibilities are endless and we hope to involve the library and education communities in helping to build more "Smart Answers" with material coming from reliable and trustworthy sources. All of these and other tools can help save the time of the searcher and keep them (in some cases) from "pogo sticking" around the web. As we all know, time is something everybody wants more of. Less clicks, more quality answers!

+ The new Ask.com Picture Search Database
++ Ask.com now crawls the web for images and uses its own relevancy algorithm. They are no longer purchasing a database of imagery from a third party. Its relevance and precision have earned it high marks.

Improved Maps, Intro of Aerial Imagery, Improved Directions
Today also brings the launch of a new and greatly enhanced Ask.com map and directions service (also using AJAX technology). You'll also find very detailed (you can "get in close" as they say) aerial and satellite imagery provided by GlobeXplorer. Imagery is available as of today for the U.S. and Canada. ALSO, SOME IMAGERY for locations in Western Europe are available. Here's the Lourve. The new Ask.com Map and Directions is full of features. One of my favorites is the chance to see both walking and/or driving directions and then animate your route by clicking the green "Play" button. You can also add in multiple stops. You can even recalculate directions by simply dragging the numbered location pointer to a new location. Btw, Maps24.com offers animated maps and directions for many parts of the world.

+ We all know that a searcher often needs help either narrowing or expanding their search. For a long time Ask.com (and Teoma) has offered the "Zoom" feature that lets the searcher see suggested clickable options to let them focus their search. They're listed in the right column. In some cases, even related names are extracted out of the result set and made easily searchable. Here's an example with a search for The Beatles. Also make sure to take note of the Smart Answer at the top of the page.

+ I Know Many Educators Use Ask Jeeves for Kids.
The service is now known as Ask for Kids. What can we do to make it better?

+ Ask.com also offers cached pages for many of the pages in its database. They also provide the precise date and time that the page was cached.

+ Other features include "binoculars" that provide page previews before the searcher clicks on the live link (a potential time saver).

+ Ask was also one of the first large search providers to market (September 2004) with a service that allows you to save, annotate, organize, and share your content called My Jeeves. Think of it as a virtual briefcase and yes, you can tag and share your posts. One feature I use often is the ability to send and then share images from my cameraphone. As of today, the service is now known as "My Stuff."

+ The Acquisition of Bloglines and Other Projects
Another key move by Ask in 2005. This is a highly loved service and lots of synergies exist between this web-based RSS aggregator and search tool. In fact, Ask is testing an improved feed search tool in Japan right now. Of course, synergies also exist using data from other IAC/InterActive properties like CitySearch, Expedia, and Ticketmaster.

+ International
ResourceShelf has a large readership outside of the U.S. and Ask.com is growing the world. We want your feedback as well. Ask.com currently has sites in The Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Japan, and the UK with more to come. The new design and some of the Ask.com features are now visible on these sites.

The Reduction of Ads
---------------------

While others have been increasing the number of paid ads on a search results page, it has been announced that Ask.com is reducing the number of paid ads on results pages.

Bottom Lines: What This Means
------------------------------

As I said earlier, by no stretch of the imagination is Ask.com a completed product. I want to help to make it better. We at Ask.com want to hear your ideas and thoughts on how to make the service work for you, your patrons, and your students.

If I had to boil down what Ask.com has been doing for the past several years, it comes down to a few key points that to some degree sound a lot like a good info pro.

+ Alternatives
In many cases the more choices the better. Google, Yahoo, MSN, Clusty and others are high quality, first rate products that we all use regularly. However, that doesn't mean that Ask.com can't also be one and isn't worthy of your attention and knowledge. A great reference collection is filled with many choices and options. A great reference librarian knows about many of them.

+ Save the Time of the Searcher
Everybody wants and needs more time and the more quickly high quality results can be provided the better. Clicks mean time. To a large degree, this sounds like one of Ranganathan's five laws of library science, "Save the time of the reader."

+ Ease of Use, Usability
Features like Zoom are easy to explain and use.

For all of you, I hope my overview not only gives you a better idea of what Ask.com has been up to for 4 years, but also starts you brainstorming about what we can do better. That is one of my key roles at Ask.com--to represent the library and education communities. I also hope that it gives you some of the reasons why I'm excited to be joining the Ask.com team. Lots of work needs to be done in many areas and all of us can work together to continue improving the service.

Reading List
------------------------------------
Remember, the Teoma search technology is now incorporated into Ask.com. These selected readings might help you get a better understanding of what Teoma algorithm and technology is all about.

+ "In conversation with..." Jim Lanzone & Apostolos Gerasoulis of Ask Jeeves/Teoma (2005)
Noted web search expert Mike Grehan chats with two Ask.com execs, Jim Lanzone & Apostolos Gerasoulis.

+ Teoma Technology (2002)
Chris Sherman takes a look at what makes Teoma technology different.

+ A Longer Look by Mike Grehan into the Teoma Algorithm (16 pages; PDF)
Teoma section begins on page 14.

+ For the Techies #1 (1999)
Many of the concepts that underly Teoma come from IBM's Clever team. This search product was never publicly released. This paper explains and is one of my all-time favorite papers about web search.

+ For the Techies #2: DiscoWeb: Applying Link Analysis to Web Search (1999)
This is the first published paper on what would become Teoma. One of its co-authors, Apostolos Gerasoulis, is now the Vice President of Research and Development at Ask.com. Btw, DiscoWeb stands for Discovery Web (not a dancing search engine).

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