Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Test Drive: Ask.com Searches for a Better Google Solution

The new Ask.com is pretty killer. The target for this Jeeves-less rebirth of the venerable search portal is clearly Google, but now o so much more from a feature and content perspective in many ways. Type in a company name into the Web search box and not only do you get darn good search results but in some instances premium corporate profile's from ECNext's Goliath premium content service in sponsored search results up top. For others like General Motors the results include some pretty interesting options: "narrow your search" categories (History of General Motors, General Motor Engines,General Motors Timeline,General Motors Corporation Job Vacancies, etc.), broaden your search (competitors) and related names. It may lack some of the sparkle of Factiva's 2.0 beta, but it's highly usable content contextualization for business-oriented searchers. The search results themselves for Web content are very acceptable in a first pass, both in terms of search quality and embedded features. A nice little plus is a binocular icon on many results that allows you to pop up an image of a page when you cursor over it before you waste a click to look at the actual page. Natural language searches also return pretty good results.

Meanwhile, back at the main search page there's of course the single-box Web search form but also a nicely designed menu of alternative searches through images, news, maps, weblogs, encyclopedias, desktop, mobile content, movies and so on. Click on any of these options and the search form changes automatically to the needs of that search, with examples of searches and search results expected popping up at the same time beneath the search zone. It's like having a whole reference set at your fingertips without having to click over to other pages to get something done. News search results seem to favor certain sources such as AFX rather heavily [UPDATE: sometimes WAY too heavily] but otherwise provide good and sometimes excellent selections. While Google News still works well on many topics, this is a news search that's at least a match in many ways and clearly superior to either Yahoo's or MSN News. Easy-to-subscribe RSS links for specific news streams makes it easy to get key topics onto a desktop.

I was prepared to be quite underwhelmed by this offering based on earlier efforts by the Ask team but Barry Diller has clearly invested a ton in making a highly focused reference product that can service a broad array of audiences with tools that place content sources in very valuable contexts. Google features have been slavishly copied in some instances (don't argue with success) but other key Ask strengths are retained and greatly enhanced by one of the most intelligently designed search interfaces on the open Web. Best of all the search results don't seem to disappoint in any major ways that I've encountered so far. Ask.com had fallen off of my radar based on earlier gut checks on quality: now it's in my bookmarks. Let the competition to do one better than this effort begin.
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