Ask.com: Google's up-and-coming rival
Search is evolving. Ask.com has features others lack. Don't let habit prevent you from trying something new.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - The activity we do most frequently online - search - is improving, and not just at Google.
Type a typical search into Ask.com - for instance "Global warming." On top of the results page is a link to a Wikipedia entry on the subject - along with a tiny chart showing rising global temperatures. Immediately below are links to two news stories on global warming.
Only then do you see ads - and just three. Below them, Ask lists the EPA's Web site, and next to that entry a little icon of binoculars. If you move your cursor over it, a miniature version of the EPA page pops up. Most of the other links on the results page also offer binocular screens. At the bottom of the page are five more ads.
On the right side of the screen, where a Google (Research) search on the same topic lists eight ads, Ask shows none at all but instead provides tools for more results. First are ten links it calls "Narrow Your Search." They include "Causes of Global Warming" and "Effects of Global Warming." Below that is a set of five more links called "Expand Your Search," including ones for "Greenhouse Effect," and "Ozone Layer."
Unlike Google, Ask gives you content before ads, includes previews, and offers related links, including those like "Ozone Layer" that you might not have thought of. Of the three other major search sites - Google, MSN, and Yahoo (Research) - only Yahoo comes close to delivering value comparable to Ask.com, but even then with a much less well-designed screen.
Jim Lanzone, Ask.com's hyper-enthusiastic CEO, has a simple explanation: "What really differentiates us is our focus on search. Other companies are partnering with content companies and launching wi-fi networks. But we're not building a rocket ship. We're building a better car. It's not what people will want in five years. It's what they want now."
There are two other concrete explanations for why Ask.com is developing superior features. First, the company was bought by IAC/InterActive (Research) last year. It became the centerpiece in a constellation of Web properties that includes Match.com, Ticketmaster, and Lending Tree, among many others.
IAC/InterActive has been pouring money in, and many of the impressive features only debuted in recent months. Marketing has been another new priority: The Ask.com name replaced Ask Jeeves in February. And only with a big parent could Ask afford to eschew ads in favor of a more compelling search experience, says Lanzone. "The premise is we'll make money through more searches rather than more money per search," he says.
But the other explanation for why Ask.com is good is its underlying technology, which used to be called Teoma. That service grew out of Pentagon-funded work at Rutgers University.
When Berkowitz and Lanzone joined Ask Jeeves after the bubble burst in 2001, the company was in crisis. For one thing, Ask Jeeves was intended to answer questions posed in ordinary English, but it didn't work very well.
Says Lanzone: "Ask Jeeves could only deliver relevant content for a small subset of queries. But people were using the site as a search engine. So the first thing we did was buy one." On 9/11, of all days, it announced at 7:30 a.m. it was buying Teoma for $4 million.
That may not seem like much, but the company's market value was only around $40 million, so the purchase was a big gamble. It paid off, because by the time the IAC/InterActive deal closed four years later, Ask Jeeves' market value had soared to $2.3 billion.
Teoma's search works differently than others. It clusters sites according to topic communities, using unique technology which Ask now calls ExpertRank. That's why it can find "ozone layer" sites when you search for "global warming."
There's a lot more to the Ask.com story, like the irony that even as it comes up Google's tailpipe, its ads are provided by that much-larger competitor, in a deal that extends through the end of next year. Ask.com also just launched an innovative search system for blogs, based on technology it got when it acquired Bloglines last year. Its map and image search products, too, offer distinct advantages over the competition.
Here are my conclusions: Ask.com will increase its 6 percent share in the search market, and quickly. IAC/InterActive, whose stock has only suffered while Ask.com has been transforming itself, will likely see that trend reverse as this superb business surges.
And finally - while I won't foreswear Google (or count it out), I will start using Ask.com a lot.