OAKLAND, Calif.--It's fairly rare in 2010 to walk into a technology company where the first thing presented to visitors is a whiteboard covered in multicolor Post-It notes.
But that's exactly what lies just beyond the receptionist's desk at Ask.com, the venerable yet beleaguered Internet company in the middle of yet another strategy shift. The sticky notes are actually part of the company's product-development workflow, giving everyone a visual representation of the number of balls in the air at any given time, not just those logged into the project management software.
Doug Leeds, president of Ask.com, wants visitors to understand that just because Ask.com is closing its search department doesn't mean it has given up on technology research altogether. Last month, Ask.com announced that it would bow to the inevitable and end its work on back-end search technology, closing offices in China, New Jersey, and Massachusetts and laying off 130, leaving 270 behind.
The idea now is simple: when your Web search company is named Ask, perhaps it makes the most sense to focus completely on the notion of information delivered through questions and answers, Leeds said in an interview with CNET last week. Ask.com has been working on this strategy for years, but is now placing greater emphasis on building community-generated answers supplemented by search results.
There's little question that Google has locked up the traditional search market, although Microsoft engineers might grumble with that assertion. So others attempting to make a business out of matching queries with results--which allows for targeted advertising--are turning to a mix of curated answers to queries posed in the form of questions rather than keywords.
Quora, the darling of the Google-and-start-up-obsessed Web crowd, is gaining traction in this space with its informed community and simple presentation. Answers.com has been around a little longer and has a much bigger audience than Quora, Yahoo has also worked on this type of service for a long time (with decidedly mixed results), and the current ascendant power on the Web--Facebook--has also rolled out a Q&A service.
Over the last year, Ask has increased both the number of queries phrased as a question (24 percent to 46 percent) as well as the number of times it is able to provide a definitive answer to a question at the top of the results page (30 percent to 58 percent). When Ask doesn't have a definitive answer it provides a traditional list of search results that it used to generate itself, but has now turned to an unspecified "third party" to provide those results without its own back-end search engineering team.
Leeds wouldn't comment on who was providing those results, but there are only so many people left these days doing the dirty work in the search business. It seems increasingly apparent that Google has quietly stepped into that role since Ask's announcement last month: a Google representative would only say "We cannot comment on our partnership with Ask. Ask has been a longstanding partner of ours and we look forward to continue working with them in the future." Google has long provided search ads on Ask.com, but not search results themselves: maps on Ask are provided by Microsoft's Bing.
The theme behind the new Q&A strategy is to tap into search frustration, a common theme presented by would-be Google killers over the past several years.
"Often times people have been to another search engine" before coming to Ask.com, Leeds said. "They just want to ask a question. Our job is to answer it right away at the top of the page."
Google has itself moved more in this direction, providing answers to simple questions like the weather, math problems, and flight-tracking information above search results. However, Ask thinks it will have an advantage by focusing its engineers on developing algorithms that crawl the Web for definitive answers as a supplement to answers provided by humans.
Leeds believed Ask.com was spending too much time trying to rank answers--a very challenging search science problem--as opposed to figuring which answer most accurately addressed the query and providing a list of search results in cases where it couldn't find an answer that met that threshold. Slowly but surely, Ask is expanding a community of users (currently about 20 percent of the site's visitors are invited to sign up) who will to provide answers to questions about subject matters in which they are interested.
"If you're asking a question, you either want a good answer or no answer at all," Leeds said. "We can't do better just by crawling the Web: too many questions that have answers that have never been published on the Web before."
Ask.com is not only hoping that it can attract more users with this approach, but that those users will stick around to do more searches on its site once their question is answered, resulting in more clicks on its ads. For example, once you've had a question answered about the best digital camera to buy for around $1,500, you'll still need to figure out where to find that camera and you might want a second opinion.
For the moment, the information seekers of the world seem pretty content to just plug away at Google, but if the Q&A notion takes off Ask.com believes it is in a good spot. Of course, its startup competitors don't have quite the same amount of corporate distractions that Ask.com has faced as part of conglomerate IAC, which recently saw Chairman and CEO Barry Diller step down from the CEO spot, and doesn't appear necessarily committed to keeping Ask.com around for the long haul, judging by comments that Diller and more recently IAC Chief Financial Officer Tom McInerney have made.
Leeds acknowledged the turmoil but said that Ask.com is focused on its turnaround. "If we were to wake up tomorrow and find out we're part of another company, it wouldn't change my job at all," he said.
Ask.com has a bit of a Yahoo problem, in that it is widely used in the grand scheme of things (90 million unique users in the U.S. in October, sixth on Comscore's list just behind good old AOL) but doesn't get the Silicon Valley adoration that is bestowed upon shiny new things, Leeds believes. It probably doesn't help that the company is located in Oakland, which isn't quite as disheveled as it is often portrayed to be but is definitely a long way--both in distance and in consideration--from the average tech industry worker in Silicon Valley or San Francisco.
There's a certain amount of sense in Ask.com's strategy to quit fighting a battle it simply couldn't win, something Yahoo still hasn't quite realized. However, it is running out of time and patience to prove that it can get ahead of a shift in information consumption on the Web and build a viable business at the same time.
Millions in advertising didn't boost Ask.com's standing in the search market. It's an open question whether definitive answers will make any difference.