Ask.com tonight is launching a new interface and a few cool new features for its search engine, which it's calling Ask3D (see CNET News.com's story). The company's AskX experimental search interface previewed many of its features.
The first thing users will notice is an attractive new home page, with pretty buttons to narrow a search by type, such as images, maps, or blogs. Users can select one of several photos as a background image on the main search interface. (In the future, you'll be able to use your own image). When you begin to type in a query, a drop-down box gives you suggestions to fill it out.
The new interface splits up search result pages into three panes. In the middle, you get your ads (by Google) and your main links. If there's an editorially created "smart answer," as there is for a popular query like "Speed Racer," you'll get a useful little blurb above everything else. Ask.com's editorial team, like Mahalo's, creates content for the most popular results (Mahalo also curates search results, which is a useful additional service).
Many results have a spyglass icon, which will display a snapshot of the search result when you hover over it (like CoolIris.com does), as well as displaying useful stats such as the page size and the load time.
On the left of the main pane, you get links related to your search. For example, in the "Speed Racer" search, under "narrow," there are links to search on ringtones, facts, the Mach 5, and so on. These links do a very good job of conveying the context of the search you're looking at.
On the right of the main pain there are related links from different search silos. In my example, there are images, videos from Blinkx, and shopping links with pictures. On different searches you get different clumps of content. For example, search for a famous pop artist, and you'll get links to audio previews (courtesy of iLike, which Ask.com's holding company, IAC, owns 25 percent of). You can play the clips in the search page, which is pretty slick.
The new Ask.com results page also uses your IP address to locate you, roughly, and can display results related to your location. For instance, when I searched for "Tom Waits," the right-hand column of the search results page had a section labeled "Event Listings" that showed me that Waits is coming to the Last Day Saloon in Santa Rosa on July 1. That's a lot more useful than just a string of concert dates in towns all over the map.
Google last month talked up Universal Search as its answer to the interface disaster of requiring searches in different silos for pictures, Web pages, and local information. Ask still has silos, but the right-hand pane does a great job of extracting search results from other search silos, without confusing the users in the main search window.
One thing that isn't radically different in Ask3D: Ask's core search engine. As far as I could tell from the preview, the search results that Ask3D returns are the same as the current Ask.com. If you're looking for mainstream results, like my examples above, you'll be satisfied. But compared with Google, I did not get consistently good results with Ask.com.
The new face of search
During an interview at D5, Bill Gates called for innovation in the user search experience. Ask's new interface answers that call, but not terribly loudly. It's not a radical rethink of searching. It's a comfortable improvement. Unfortunately, any company with a large market share in search technology is hamstrung by user expectations. As Ask's Vice President of Products and User Experience Daniel Read told me, "You can't go shock on awe on a huge amount of consumers. They're used to a certain way of navigating." Radical change in the search experience will thus not likely come from the big guys, but there are some companies running interesting user interface experiments, though.
Ask.com still doesn't have people search (see Spock.com and Wink.com), and there's no Web 2.0-like user-voting system (see Sproose.com). However, the team is planning on letting users "personalize their content feeds," in a future release, which Read said would be "almost like social search." Ask also doesn't have a start page with customizable content like My Yahoo or iGoogle. That's in the works as well, but I could not get a date for that upgrade.
I like Ask.com. The company's trailing position in the search engine market makes it a scrappy competitor, and this new interface really does school other, much larger companies' search experiences. It is much more enjoyable to use. During testing, though, Ask.com's results let me down just enough to make me withhold recommending that everybody adopt this engine instead of Google's. Ask.com is very good, but it's not that good.