The mainstream press—Reuters, The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, etc.—reported last week that Ask.com was scaling back operations, laying off around 40 people (about 8% of its total employees) and moving in a new direction for its search business. Ask.com did not actually issue a statement, nor did its parent, IAC/InterActiveCorp. (www.iac.com). Specifically, the news reports quoted Ask’s CEO Jim Safka indicating the company would adopt a new strategy that focused on its core customers: "The company found that about 65 percent of its user base are women, with a high concentration of users in their late 30s in the U.S. Midwest and Southeast." And these users predominantly use the site to ask questions, such as entertainment and health. Bloggers picked up on this and many of them berated the company for becoming a search engine just for married women. Some flatly declared this to be the death of Ask.com. This conclusion was then labeled by Ask.com corporate spokesperson, Nicholas Graham, as "just plain wrong." Graham stressed that the company’s focus would be on making it easier for its core audience of searchers to ask questions. Whether the media misrepresented the news (unlikely since the reports agreed) or Ask.com is backtracking after the negative reactions, it is clear the search engine landscape is shrinking, and Ask.com appears to be ceding the general search business to Google.
In a phone interview, Graham said he felt the company’s message had indeed been subject to misinterpretation and over simplification. According to him, the first headline on the AP story (Ask.com Seeks Makeover As Women’s Site), which highlighted the women search focus, was withdrawn and rewritten (Ask.com Scales Back in Makeover)—but not before it was picked up and repeated throughout the blogosphere. But he stressed that the company would pay attention to and build on its core legacy of users. "We can’t be all things to all people. It’s not about ‘niche-ing,’ it’s about focus. It’s a business doing the smart thing."
Among the 40 casualties of this corporate redirection was Gary Price, director of online resources for Ask.com. Price is well-known and highly respected among librarians and information professionals. His role at Ask.com was to help make search better for users and to be a resource to the Ask.com community and the go-to guy for librarians. In a gentlemanly posting on ResourceShelf, he gave no details but simply said, "Ask.com is taking the company in a new and different direction and I will not be a part of it." He added, "Sad news? Sure it is, but it has been a great experience and I’m glad I was able to be a part of. No tears, just smiles. It’s time to move on." While he doesn’t know what he’ll do next, he assured his supporters that ResourceShelf (just celebrating its 7th anniversary) and DocuTicker would continue and that he would keep all planned speaking engagements for 2008. (Price will be speaking several times at next month’s Computers in Libraries 2008 and at Internet@Schools East in Arlington, Va.)
Interestingly, Price said he started working at Ask.com 2 years ago, on Feb. 28, 2006, the same day as Jeeves the butler retired as Ask.com’s mascot. The service was known as Ask Jeeves, and Jeeves was one of the most familiar icons of the search world and beloved by many. The ask-a-question, get-an-answer approach was traditionally the focus on the Ask Jeeves site.
Here’s a quick historical review. Ask.com was formerly Ask Jeeves, Inc. The company was founded in 1996 in Berkeley, Calif., by David Warthen, veteran software developer, and Garrett Gruener, venture capitalist at Alta Partners and founder of Virtual Microsystems. In Sept. 2001, Ask Jeeves acquired Teoma technologies, the algorithmic technology that is at the core of the Ask search engine—and, says Graham, this technology is not going away (contrary to some rumors). In July 2005, Ask Jeeves, Inc. became a wholly-owned business of Barry Diller’s mega-corporation IAC/InterActiveCorp. In February 2006, Ask Jeeves relaunched as Ask.com, retiring the Jeeves butler mascot.
Over the years, Ask.com’s technology and features have received some highly positive reviews from folks like Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal and search engine experts Danny Sullivan, Chris Sherman, and others. Ask.com has been widely praised for its innovative approach to search. In June 2007, Ask.com launched Ask3D, synthesizing search technologies across the three dimensions of search: Search Expression, Results, and Content. Ask3D met with industry acclaim—but it still has not been able to capture more than a small percentage of overall search traffic. The Ask.com sites reportedly have some 45 million visitors per month.
As a business of IAC/InterActive, Ask.com has felt the parent company’s recent turmoil. IAC is preparing to split itself up into five companies, and, in January 2008, it did some management reshuffling. Jim Safka was named CEO of Ask.com, with Jim Lanzone stepping down. (According to observers, Lanzone’s departure was in fact a clear signal that Ask.com would soon be changing significantly.) Meanwhile, IAC is suffering from board voting disputes and legal actions by John Malone and Liberty Media seeking to block Diller’s plans. But the bottom line is that Ask.com is just one business within the very large corporate structure—search is just a product. Given the chaos and distraction, it’s probably not surprising that Ask.com suffered what has to be viewed as mishandled and disorganized corporate communications around these changes.
Other people have reportedly left the company since Lanzone’s departure, including Michael Ferguson who was senior user-experience analyst for Ask.com since 1995. When asked about the exodus of talent, Graham would only confirm that a "handful of people" have left of late.
Reactions and Looking Forward
So with this "new" focus on answering questions for a core domestic (predominantly female) audience, are we returning to the days of the household butler for the venerable search engine? Graham lightheartedly responded, "We’ve spoken to Jeeves this week. He’s retired and working on his golf game. He’s not coming back."
Graham indicated that the 40 positions that were eliminated cut across all divisions of the company and comprised positions that were "not completely aligned with the new business strategy." He also revealed that the company would be hiring for new positions to "grow core teams" for the new strategy, but he would not indicate the nature of the jobs. He stressed that the company would work hard to find ways to be unique and relevant for its core audience.
After talking with Graham, Kevin Newcomb wrote at Search Engine Watch: "The strategy is a sound one, which many companies in all industries take: give the people what they want. Ask.com knows that its core users often search a certain way. It only makes sense to build out features and results that will satisfy those users. By improving search results for its core users, Ask.com is improving search results for all its users."
But many industry observers bemoan the loss of Ask.com in the general search arena and feel that IAC/InterActive is giving up on it when it has some real momentum. Tara Calishain wrote at Researchbuzz: "Had this shift in focus happened five years ago, I would not have much cared. Now, I care very much. Ask in the last couple of years has come up with some great offerings. The mapping service. The packed-with-data-but-still-usable search results. The terrific page preview with statistics. AskEraser. And Bloglines. (Hopefully, Bloglines will go on.) So many great things—I’m sad and sorry that Ask isn’t staying in the game."
As for the rumors of the search engine’s death, specifically the "obit" written by Danny Sullivan on Search Engine Land, Graham says he hopes that the obituary was written in pencil. "We hope to talk to him and get him to rewrite the story."
Sullivan wrote, "I hope you’ll understand when I and the many others you’ve dismissed as the ‘digerati’ aren’t counting you in the search game any longer. That’s because we know in our hearts you’re gone, even if you protest that it’s not so." As for the timing of the strategic shift, Sullivan said, "Ask is out of the game, perhaps at exactly the right time when it should be ready to run onto the field if Microhoo happens."
Stephen Abram, vice president of innovation at SirsiDynix and president of SLA, wrote on his blog that it looks like our four search engine options will soon be reduced to two. And, he issued a challenge to the library community: "Is LibraryLand finally ready to offer a compelling alternative to ad supported search?"