A Conversation with Ask’s CEO, Jim Lanzone

First published May 18, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I had the chance to spend some time talking to Ask’s new CEO, Jim Lanzone. The first thing that become very clear is that Lanzone is tired of his company’s being compared to Google, MSN and Yahoo. I immediately slipped into the trap of asking how Ask intends to fight the big G and the two other contenders. It was obviously a question that he has heard all too often in the past. “Let’s begin by resetting the framework for the question,” Lanzone replied. “We don’t want to climb Everest right now. We’re not planning on knocking out Google. Our goal is to take our 20 million users, who are currently using us twice a month, and bump that up to four times a month. That doubles our market share,” he said.

“Search is not a zero sum gain,” Lanzone continued. “Americans use about 3.2 engines a month. We want to get on the list. We want to offer an alternative to Google.” As he pointed out, it’s much easier to post impressive market share growth percentages when you’re starting with a relatively small slice of the pie. “For Google to move the needle even a few points, they have to attract huge numbers of new searches,” he said. “We can achieve huge growth just by getting people to use us a few more times each month.”

Focusing on the User

Ask has come out of the gate strongly since the rebrand and the removal of Jeeves. The focus has been squarely on improving the search experience for its existing user. “We want to put the right tool in the right place at the right time,” said Lanzone. “We want to be waiting for the user when they need us.”

Distancing Ask from the helpful butler has proven itself to be difficult. “People are much more aware of us as Ask Jeeves than Ask. It will take time,” he said. For right or wrong, the efforts of Ask Jeeves to brand themselves as a natural query engine have stuck. A long-time member of Ask’s usability team, Michael Ferguson, pointed out the challenges of trying to change how people search. “For years, we’ve been telling people to ask us a question. We’ve perhaps been a little too successful in encouraging them. I once asked a lady what was the last thing she searched for on (then) Ask Jeeves. She was disappointed in the results she got when she typed in ‘Midnight basketball programs are more successful in LA than in St. Louis. Why is that?'”

I had written some time ago that I believe we’ve become used to truncating our search intent into a few words. Apparently, Ask now agrees. Rather than trying to accommodate natural language, Ask now takes a more standard approach to query construction.

Tools When You Need Them, Where You Need Them

Even the physical layout of Ask’s new home page tried to ease the transition from the once ubiquitous butler. Ferguson said, “We put the new tool palette where Jeeves used to be. It’s about the same height and size, so visually it has the same balance.”

The palette is a big part of the new usability focus of Ask. Lanzone explained, “We have some great tools, and we wanted to move them more upfront for the user. We didn’t want to hide them with tabs, which no one clicks on. With the palette, it’s right there, waiting for them.”

Based on initial numbers, people are using the tools more than ever before. Usage on most of them has doubled, with some, like image and map search, posting far higher gains.

Another change was a rethinking of how to use the real estate of the search results page. “The ads from the right rail are gone,” said Lanzone. “We’ve replaced that with something searchers can use, the ‘Narrow’ and ‘Broaden’ your search suggestions. Rather than 1 or 2 percent click-throughs on ads, we’re getting 30 percent click throughs on those suggestions. We know that search is an iterative process, so why not help make it easier by helping the user get to the right search faster?”

Another cleaned up area of the SERP is the top-sponsored ads. It used to be that organic results were pushed right off the page by far too many sponsored listings. Top-sponsored listings have since been restricted to three, in line with other major engines, with the rest shown at the bottom of the page. This used to be one of my pet peeves with Jeeves, and apparently I had plenty of sympathizers in the Ask usability team. “We were a public company, responding to demand for profits,” Lanzone explains. “A lot of us never agreed with that.” Kudos to parent company IAC for eventually listening to the champions of the user experience.

Not Bolder, Just Better

I wrapped up by telling Lanzone that I believed Ask was in a good position to become the bold innovator in search. Unlike Google and Yahoo, it isn’t solely dependent on a huge revenue stream from search, so it can afford to take some risks in testing new interfaces and developments. He replied, “You know, we’ve never considered what we’ve done, or plan to do, as being bold. It just has to be right for the user. All the changes we’ve made were done because in our testing, it felt right. We’re not chasing technology for its own sake. We have a laser focus on the user experience. We just want to do search right.”

I’m a huge believer in focused strategy and feet on the ground, practical user-centricity. They’re two commodities that are in drastically short supply in the current heated search space. If Ask sticks to its guns, it just may just get a shot at the big dogs in search.

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