The top Web search engines keep rolling out new features and options designed to attract and retain searchers. Many have introduced new personalization and local search options, smart/direct search responses (weather, movie times, airline flight information, etc.), and other bells and whistles. But Ask Jeeves, usually seen as an also-ran to Google and Yahoo!, has just introduced some core search innovations that it says will significantly improve the relevance and speed of users' searches. The two new search products on Ask Jeeves (http://www.ask.com) are Zoom, a next-generation related-search tool that gives users suggestions to narrow or expand their searches, and Web Answers, which provides direct answers harvested in real time from the Web pages in the Ask Jeeves index. With the backing of its new parent (IAC/InterActiveCorp) and its differentiated technologies (including natural language processing and the Teoma search engine), Ask Jeeves says it's ready to take on the competition.
Jim Lanzone, senior vice president of search properties for Ask Jeeves, said: "Zoom and Web Answers are not bells and whistles; they are important innovations on some of our core search technologies, which will help our users find what they need faster than with other search engines."
Zoom is actually a concept navigation tool that offers users suggestions to narrow and refine a search ("zooming in"), or expand a search ("zooming out"). It can also identify specific names related to a search. Zoom is visually represented on the results page with suggestions that are categorized on the right side of the page into Narrow Your Search, Expand Your Search, and Related Names.
Ask Jeeves says that Zoom takes advantage of and builds on the unique clustering ability of the company's Teoma search technology, which breaks the Web into naturally occurring topic communities. Zoom examines the relationships between these communities to identify and present conceptually related topics to the searcher.
Ask Jeeves had previously offered a "Related Topics" feature. In fact, company representatives said it was the number one feature that searchers used on the site. Zoom provides a much improved and more intuitive implementation of this search tool.
The results I saw were surprisingly on target and helpful. A simple search on "Prozac" linked directly to the drug's site (as does a search on Google), but it also provides suggestions for more specific topics (dosage, side effects, etc.), as well as an expanded list of related medications (Zoloft, Paxil, etc.), and broader topics such as depression and anti-depressants.
Writing in SearchDay, Chris Sherman and Gary Price commented: "Although other search engines offer query refinement suggestions, the variety you get with Zoom, allowing you to narrow or expand your focus, or find information about related people, is unique to Ask Jeeves and is a seriously cool feature."
The new Web Answers expands upon another technology offered by Ask Jeeves—its Smart Search , which mines structured data for direct answers. Web Answers extends Ask Jeeves' direct-answering abilities by mining unstructured data in real time. The new capability finds answers hidden within regular Web pages in the Ask Jeeves search index .
Web Answers is triggered by questions, phrases, or keywords and shows as the top organic search result on the Ask Jeeves results page. The result is labeled as a "Web Answer," and the "answer" is highlighted in context within the snippet or description of the Web page. Because Web Answers taps open Web content, users should exercise judgment in evaluating the validity of the answers— the sources might not be authoritative or accurate.
While other sites offer question-answer services, and Ask Jeeves has been known for answering questions, the new technology enhancements bring Ask Jeeves to another level of service—not always perfect answers, but definitely improved functionality that's a step ahead of its peers in providing better results. Ask Jeeves has raised the bar.
Sherman and Price pointed out that MSN, Google, and Yahoo! also provide direct answers to questions. "But none of these services work by analyzing Web content in real time, based on your query, which is what Ask Jeeves does, nor are they as comprehensive," they wrote.
In April, Nick Tomaiuolo reported on the new Q&A functionality in Google, which also taps open Web sites in addition to the usual almanac and encyclopedia sources like Wikipedia http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=16228). He noted a number of shortcomings and problems in his testing. Google returned the wrong answer to the question: " Who was the president of the USA in 1996?" When I checked this in Ask Jeeves, it provided links to lists of all the presidents, and under "Related Names" listed "President Clinton." For another test question that had unsatisfactory results on Google ("What does Saturn look like?"), Ask Jeeves immediately presented several photos of the planet, as well as a site with photos of Saturn vehicles and, of course, suggestions to narrow or broaden the search.
By the way, executives at parent IAC/InterActiveCorp have reportedly said they love Ask Jeeves—but not its name. So, stay tuned to hear the new name for the improved and feisty service.