Does anybody remember when news was the red-headed stepchild of searching? Search engines didn’t index as quickly as they do now. Quantity of content was more important than quality. Online news sites were not as extensive as they are now. News was an afterthought, an extra. My, how times have changed!
Now news sites are extensive and updated frequently, and search engine indexers can match the pace. The ubiquity of broadband and the popularity of multimedia have brought news video to the forefront. News search engines are extremely popular nowadays (I use Yahoo! News far more than I use the Yahoo! search engine), so it shouldn’t be surprising that Ask.com has launched a large, loud, and social news search of its own—Ask BigNews, available at http://news.ask.com/news.
Large? Hey, it’s called Ask BigNews for a reason. Loud? Check out Google News, with its sedate, mostly text-based list of news and then come back to Ask’s screen shots, icon splashes, and purple strips of videos. You’ll come up with an adjective, and it won’t be "mild." Social? Hey, the Digg is built right in. (Ask.com partnered with Digg.com, www.digg.com, the community-based news ranking site.) Ask BigNews even suggests stories for YOU to Digg, instead of just showing you what everyone else is Digg’ing.
The front page is very busy, but it’s easy to understand after a moment. There are several stories with images and short descriptions. Each story also links to several items of related information and shows a "Big Factor" score. The Big Factor is, according to Ask, a combination of the freshness the story (Breaking), the search frequency and mentions of the topic (Impact), the amount of multimedia associated with the story (Media), and the amount of discussion generated by the story (Discussion). Of course, Ask doesn’t spell out how all the factors work together to determine a score, but at least you have some ingredients for the ranking "secret sauce"—a lot more than you can say for some news search engines.
I’m going to stay on the front page because there’s so much to explore here you might not even want to search for a while. The top of the page is taken up with screen shots, icons, and links, but further down the page, you’ll find news videos and lists of stories that seem designed to give you every angle: "Bush signs aid deal with Tanzania" (Big Factor 97) includes links to 622 articles, two blogs, 21 images, two videos, a 4-day history of the developing story, and a partridge in a pear tree. Okay, I made that last one up. This story roundup even has its own page that provides lots of thumbnails, lots of headlines, and even a bar chart menu that lets you mouse over to see how many stories and other items were generated on what day.
At the very bottom of the page (beneath yet another purple strip, this one of "movers and shakers" in the news), you’ll find the stories that have been frequently Digg’d. I can understand this. Everyone wants to know what everyone else is talking about. But it also makes me worry that users may limit themselves to sitting down and absorbing each other’s cultural backwash, so to speak.
So Ask BigNews also offers stories that it considers interesting but which haven’t been Digg’d yet. The popular stories are on the left, while the non-Digg’d are on the right. And you’ll notice that the popular stories tend to be either meta (about Digg) or useful (How To Do Something) or specific to a popular thing (something specific about a popular person, company, or institution). The non-Digg’d stories tend to be big stories that Ask thinks are interesting but are nonspecific and noninstructive. But I’m getting off-topic.
Perhaps all this front-page exuberance isn’t getting it done for you. You do have browsing and search options. Ask offers six kinds of news to browse through (as opposed to nine at Google News; Ask does not offer Politics, U.S., or World News) and a regular keyword search engine. Like most search engines, Ask does not provide a list of its sources, but it seems to compare well to Google News—a search for "recent recall" on Google brought fewer than 4,400 results, while on Ask it brought more than 12,000 results. A search for "Tina Turner" brought fewer than 5,500 results at Ask, while bringing more than 1,600 results at Yahoo! News.
Ask BigNews does fall down a bit on filtering, though. Thanks to Google News’ location syntax, you can narrow results by state or country. You can also narrow results by search. Ask’s filters let you narrow your results by world region (Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, etc.) or by category, but that’s it. Ask does offer RSS feeds for its search results—well done in that department.
Ask does offer personalization in the form of MyNews; you can click on Track on the Big Factor icon and choose MyNews—the set of stories you chose will have additional information added to it as it’s updated. The good news is that you don’t have to have an account to use MyNews; the bad news is that you will have to enable cookies.
With more than 10,000 sources, Ask BigNews covers a wide variety of topics. But you might find the limited amount of filtering available makes it difficult to get right to the kind of search results you want. This news search will call for a lot of keyword query experiments.
The debut of Ask BigNews caused a reasonable blip of interest in the blogosphere—some curious, some ho-hum responses (the news space is "crowded"); others were more impressed. One blogger wrote "My vote—thumbs up. Ask.com has done well integrating social media with news in a clean, easy-to-use interface."
Search expert Chris Sherman wrote on Search Engine Land: "The bottom line is that Big News is an attractive news aggregator with some nice features. I still prefer Yahoo[!] News, with its less colorful but more function-packed interface—with things like direct access to influential sources, the ability to mouse-over a headline and see a pop up snippet of a story, and the ability to quickly customize news categories with your own preferred sources. But if Ask continues to innovate on Big News in the way they have with their impressive Ask 3D web search results, Big News is a service worth keeping an eye on."