Buzzing ‘Bout Ask

First published August 23, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

On the floors of the San Jose Convention Center at Search Engine Strategies, I’ve heard a lot of buzz about many different things. I’ve been involved in a number of discussions about everything from click fraud to personalization to how long the wait would be for a bus to the Google Dance. But it was a conversation I had last night at dinner that had me reflecting as I was looking for a column topic for this week.

I’ve written before about how I like many of things that Ask is doing. This week, unprompted by me, at least 5 different people have told me over the last two days how much they like Ask’s new interface. Tonight at dinner, that’s how one of these conversation kicked off. But soon (and this also was a recurring theme) it veered in the direction of “I really like Ask, but what’s up with their TV ads ?”

Search + TV Advertising: a Dismal Track Record

First of all, I really don’t think TV advertising is the answer for any search engine. Let me recount some of those that have invested heavily in TV in the past: Infoseek (via Disney and ABC), Snap (via NBC), Altavista and Microsoft. Hmmm, what’s the common factor here? Sinking market share, perhaps? I won’t argue the merits (or lack of same) of Ask’s decision to use television, because I think there’s a much more important factor here; the company’s interface. And in that regard, I applaud its strategy.

I’ve often been asked what Microsoft should do to bolster market share. My advice has always been: be bold with your interface. Take risks. Differentiate yourself. Well, sorry, Microsoft, you’re too late. Ask has already done it. And my guess is you may soon find yourself in last place in a four-horse race.

But back to my dinner conversation. After we finished sniggering at Ask’s TV ads, I said, “You know, this is just how Google got to be number one.” No, not by running TV ads with Kato Kaelin or Chicks with Sword. I meant getting people talking about their search experience. Google grew to be a search giant by word of mouth. The company differentiated itself in the world of search by significantly upping the user experience. This got people talking, and more importantly, got people using Google, even when it was just a beta student project sitting on some borrowed servers at Stanford.

Remarkable Search Experiences

Now, Ask is generating the same kind of buzz. It’s getting people talking. It’s greasing the wheels of the WOM machine. It’s noteworthy. It’s remarkable, in the truest sense of the word. The bold moves of the 3D interface will do more for market share than dancing chicks with swords ever will (although, I have to admit, that also is getting people talking).

Jim Lanzone is a smart guy. Barry Diller is a double threat: a smart, rich guy . And kudos to Michael Ferguson and his usability team. They’ve come a long ways from Jeeves, and every step I’ve seen so far has been one in the right direction (TV ad strategies aside). As Lanzone once said to me when I asked him how Ask was going to conquer Google: “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,”

Now, even with these realistic goals, this is not a cakewalk. For Ask to overtake Live would require a tripling of its market share, according to the latest numbers from comScore. But I’m hearing a lot more buzz about Ask than about Live, and I’m hearing it in the right circles, the people who know good search when they see it. We’ll see if that buzz successfully crosses the chasm.

Interface Innovation

But there’s more than just market share at stake here. Ask has also boldly moved into the role of the innovator. It has pushed the envelope and introduced a different look to the search experience. It’s broken the linear paradigm. True, the company had less to lose, but it still took guts.

I was chatting with Jakob Nielsen not that long ago, and he had reservations about the ability of Ask to pull this off. He said “It’s a huge dominant user behavior to scan a linear list — and so this attempt to put other things on the side, to tamper with the true layout, the true design of the page, to move from it being just a list, it’s going to be difficult.”

Shortly after that conversation, we actually put it to the test for one particular task. We gave one group a query to do on Google, with its blended linear list, and one group the same query on Ask, with its 3D interface. Average on-the-page duration for the two groups was within one second of each other. Our panelists adjusted very well to Ask’s interface. Of course, that was just one interaction, but my gut tells me that breaking the paradigm might not be as difficult as Jakob imagines. It will all depend on providing strong information scent and relevance in the key areas of the page.

For search marketers, there’s another important point to consider. Our interactions with the page, the top-to-bottom linear F-shaped scan that produced the Golden Triangle, could soon be changing. The page will be much richer visually, and segmented both vertically and horizontally. It’s a brand new piece of real estate, to be navigated in a different way.

And now, my final point. If I prove to be correct and Ask does move into third place, it won’t be TV ad dollars that does it. It will be because the company focused on users and gave them something remarkable. And if you want to know how quickly and how far the word can spread, look up Reed’s Law sometime. In fact, why not try Ask?

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