In addition to a new user interface, Ask also is focusing on improving searches in specific content areas like entertainment, health, and reference.
When search engine Ask.com first launched, the site touted itself as a place where people searching for information on the Web could ask natural-language questions and get relevant answers back as results. Now Ask is doubling down on that mission, launching a new version of its site on Monday that includes some of the first hints of natural-language processing technology, among other new features.
The new site represents the third major overhaul for Ask since 2005, when the site was bought by IAC/Interactive and soon after dropped its Jeeves character.
"The core strategy is still around providing in one click the best answer the first time, as opposed to you having to continually iterate [your searches]," said Ask president Scott Garrell.
In the new version, he said, Ask has improved speed, relevance of results, and, with a new user interface, its ease of use. Ask also is focusing on improving searches in specific content areas like entertainment, health, and reference.
Ask remains a distant fourth in search engine market share to Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, and has seen relatively steady market share in the last few years, carrying out just fewer than 5% of all search queries, according to ComScore, and the company said it has between 30 million and 35 million monthly visitors. Garrell said that early tests are showing the new site may result in a 16% improvement in customer retention.
An improved relevance engine figures in several new search technologies to filter and organize results, including one that integrates structured data provided by partners, another that specifically queries tens of thousands of user-generated content sites, a semantic search technology that aims to give users direct answers to questions they ask, and links to related searches. The site will continue to weave news, video, and image results in with regular search results.
Direct Answers from Search, or DAFS, is Ask's first major foray into semantic search, a technology that uses concepts from linguistics to grammar in an attempt to extract meaning from unstructured content. Though this feature is rough in its current form -- Garrell calls semantic search "very, very hard" -- it follows Microsoft's recent acquisition of semantic search startup Powerset and could be seen as an attempt to one-up Google's features. As an example of how DAFS will work, a search for "who discovered plutonium" returns the answer of Dr. G.T. Seaborg before any other algorithmic results.
One of the new search technologies, Direct Answers from Databases, or DADS, matches Ask up with partners like Ticketmaster and TV listing companies to integrate structured data into search results. Now, when people search for "What NFL games are on TV this Sunday?" they'll likely get back local TV listings of NFL games atop their results. A similar search for Coldplay concerts will return the band's upcoming tour schedule. Ask plans to add health, recipes, and other topics to the list of those covered by this technology.
Another feature, AnswerFarm, pulls in user-generated content from sites like Wikihow, eHow, WebMD, and Yahoo Answers. Ask the site how to get rid of love handles, for example, and among the first results is a post from Yahoo Answers that instructs the searcher to exercise and avoid sweets.
Ask also has improved its Smart Answers feature, which, like Google's OneBox, returns relevant results that don't rely only on links but instead provide some context around a query. For example, search Ask for Miley Cyrus and you'll get back TV listings of her hit show Hannah Montana, news results, images, biographical information, and related searches.
The search engine also has introduced a slimmed-down user interface, moving from a three-column design to a two-column design and contributing to what Garrell said is a 30% improvement in speed. In addition, the company has introduced a new site specifically designed for kids, AskKids.com, that does some filtering of search results and allows kids to choose from several different backgrounds.
New in beta is what Ask is calling its Q&A technology. Type "pregnancy" in the search bar and the right-hand column of the results page will contain a link that says "78,824 questions about pregnancy." Click that and you'll be taken to a page that contains all sorts of questions and answers about pregnancy.
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