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Ask.com Debuts New Look For Search Results

The company has introduced Ask3D, a revised search service with a three-panel search results interface and a new search algorithm called Morph.

Ask is asking for another chance to be your search engine.

Ditching its overly mannered mascot, Jeeves the butler, didn't win Ask.com any dates with Internet searchers. Despite the first-rate features rolled out by the fourth-ranked search engine since its acquisition by IAC two years ago, Ask, like MSN/Live.com and Yahoo.com, has been losing ground to Google in recent months, according to ComScore's metrics.

And like Yahoo, with its Panama ad platform, and Microsoft, with its purchase of aQuantive and a new Silicon Valley search engine effort, Ask is anything but defeated: The company Tuesday introduced Ask3D, a revised search service with a new three-panel search results interface and a new search algorithm called Morph.

Morph is similar in concept to Google's recently launched universal search in that it surfaces text, images, and video search results on the same page. The difference is that Ask's results look better and are easier to navigate.

Ask3D "is a complete redefinition of our core search products," said Daniel Read, VP of consumer products at Ask. "It's something we're very excited about because it's the culmination of probably up to five years of thinking and strategizing and testing and experimenting in how core search is brought to the user. We believe what we've got here is really a major leap forward in search user experience and something that puts us beyond our competitors."

The redesigned home page, which features glossy icons that bear more than a passing resemblance to the graphic eye candy adorning Apple's iPhone, is the least of Ask's new features. Ask3D's most innovative features are its new interface and its new search algorithm. The company says that 12 patents have been filed for Ask3D. It also has a new marketing message, "Instant Getification," to describe its improved search experience.

Ask uses three vertical panes on its search results page. The left-hand pane presents links to pages with conceptually related queries to help narrow or expand a given search. The center pane shows the now-standard search results list in conjunction with Ask's "Binoculars" links that pop-up miniature page previews. The right panel shows content that's relevant to the query, often images or videos or related news stories.

Google uses its right panel to show ads.

A search for "Bono," for example, presents an enhanced Smart Answer (OneBox in Google parlance) detailing U2's singer at the top of the center pane, with a single sponsored link below it, followed by 10 standard search results links and a second sponsored link.

The left-hand panel includes links to narrow the search: Biography of Bono of U2, Bono Aids, Bono's Real Name, U2 Lead Singer, and so on. Below that, it lists links to expand the search: Jennifer Aniston Biography, U2 Wallpaper, and Live 8, for example. And the left-hand panel includes links to related names like Bob Geldoff and Paul Hewson (Bono's birth name).

The right-hand panel presents images of Bono that expand with mouse "rollover," news images and links, plus location-based event listings. There's also a Popular Tracks menu that should list playable songs, though this feature wasn't yet active at the time this article was written.

While Ask's search results page appears to devote less space to ads than any of the other major search engines (except perhaps when answering explicitly commercial queries such as "computers"), Read says the company's ad strategy is the one thing not changed in this release. "We make plenty of money from the searches we service," said Read. "What we're interested in doing is increasing frequency."

Judging by the innovative, useful features Ask has implemented, the company stands a good chance of doing just that.

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