Ask.com on Tuesday launched a new search site that has analysts impressed, but it may not appeal enough to consumers to keep them coming back.
The company has struggled for years to compete with Google, which attracts nearly 50 percent of all searches. Ask ranks fourth behind Yahoo and Microsoft but just ahead of AOL, with just more than 5 percent market share, according to research firm ComScore.
"It's all about search engine loyalty," said Charlene Li of Forrester Research. "Will it move the needle? I think it will, primarily because it is a different interface. It will definitely get people now using Ask to use it more often than any other search engine."
Barry Parr, a Jupiter analyst, had a similar take. "I don't think this change alone is going to bolt them into being a top-tier player. On the other hand, I think a lot of people are going to find that this is a good experience for them and that it is something they enjoy using," he said.
Ask now features a new design and re-engineering, with a simple white homepage default, customizable backgrounds, new video search powered by Blinkx and the ability to view video previews merely by moving the cursor over the thumbnail image. The new site lets users listen to music clips by clicking on the song title, and to enlarge images by rolling the cursor over the thumbnail. Search results are based on the searcher's location, providing local businesses and events, and those results can be saved into a folder for sharing with others, and images can be filtered by size, type and other criteria.
The biggest change is the incorporation of all types of search onto one page. The results page is divided into three sections, thus the new name for the site--"Ask3D." The left side has the search box and the ability to expand and narrow results, as well as related results. The center section contains the Web results, with Smart Answers that present the most likely results and binoculars that preview the page and indicates how long the page will take to download.
The right side offers other types of results that are customized for the search. For instance, a search for a city will bring up the weather, local time and business listings for that location. A search for a movie displays local show times, video teasers and products related to the movie. A search for a musical group shows local events, news, video and links to songs.
Ask is not the first to experiment with combining numerous types of search results onto one page: Yahoo has toyed with it, and Google made a big splash when it launched its Universal Search interface last month. While Ask separates out the video, news and other types of results from the Web results on the page, Google inserted them between the Web results, creating one very long list of results.
"We thought they might have scooped us," said Doug Leeds, vice president of product management at Ask. "The big fumble, though, was the way they implemented it. They took all this good content (such as video, image, news results) and stuck it in the middle of their search results...We're taking all these different kinds of content and putting it along the right side of the page, where Google has ads."
Leeds was realistic in discussing the company's strategy to gain market share, explaining that he doesn't expect the new site will attract a huge amount of new users. The goal is to have the 25 million unique U.S. visitors and 50 million worldwide visitors become regular, loyal users of Ask, instead of using the site only occasionally, as is the case now, he said.
"What we are trying to do is get those 25 million people who search on us every month to search more often," Leeds said.
Greg Sterling, founder of consultancy Sterling Market Intelligence, said he was impressed with the organization and design of the new Ask site, and Forrester's Li said it beats Google's new interface "hands down."
"This is an attempt to boost the usage frequency of the occasional searchers. In terms of the larger question about what it will do to Ask's market share overall, that's very hard to predict," Sterling said. "The interface and content layout is different from the others, so that, in and of itself, will probably get some people to take notice."