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Jeeves, You're Fired
Humanized Search Now as Passe as the Butler Himself

By Leslie Walker
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

NEW YORK

I grieve for Jeeves.

The butler mascot of the Ask Jeeves search service got the boot yesterday but will always remind me of the pre-Google era when searching online still intimidated most people. Back then, the cartoonish Jeeves helped humanize the impersonal search box by encouraging folks to ask the virtual valet their questions in plain English.

But after 10 years, Jeeves had outlived his usefulness, or so his new owner decided. IAC/Interactive Corp. bought the search engine last year and relaunched it yesterday with a new name -- Ask.com -- a new suite of search tools and a big marketing push designed to persuade people that Ask's search results are as good as or better than Google's.

"While the others have been getting into all sorts of other things, what we've really been concentrating on is everyday search," IAC chief executive Barry Diller (who is also a director of The Washington Post Co.) told several thousand people attending a conference here called Search Engine Strategies. In an interview after his talk, Diller said that in addition to special new tools and an ad campaign called "Use tools, feel human," Ask is building its own search advertising technology, which could allow it to compete more aggressively with Google and Yahoo. Ask currently shows its own Web search results but displays ads provided mostly by Google.

Ask also will roll out a new "Ask Pass" loyalty program this year, Diller said, to reward frequent searchers on Ask.com with discounts and special benefits at scores of other Web properties owned by IAC or its partners. Those include LendingTree, CitySearch, Ticketmaster, Match.com, RealEstate.com, Evite and Expedia.

"It is possible that Ask could be the glue, the mortar, between all of our different brands," said Diller.

In his on-stage talk, Diller quipped that even though he looked like Jeeves (boy, does he), it was time to fire the "fat butler" (a cheap shot, since Jeeves went on a diet in 2004) because the "Ask Jeeves" schtick had reduced Ask to a niche service where people went to ask specific questions like, "How much did Barry Diller pay for the search engine he wound up renaming?" ($1.8 billion, if you must know). Diller wants people to think of Ask as a place they can go to do general research, like Google and Yahoo.

But Google has such a stranglehold on Internet search today that people look at you funny if you even mention another engine. So it was not surprising to hear envy oozing from Diller's voice when he told the crowd, "Google sneezes and it's on the front pages of every paper in the world today."

Still, Diller said IAC is investing in Web search for the long haul and is willing to wait a long time for Ask to pay off. Today, despite what experts regard as its impressive Web-indexing technology, Ask remains a minor search player, ranked fifth in the volume of online queries it handles after Google, Yahoo, MSN and America Online.

Diller said he doesn't believe the public's infatuation with Google "is a permanent condition" that will allow it to retain such a sizeable lead forever. (Google's market share is variously estimated at anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent.) At its core, Google is a media company, and media companies are not natural monopolies, Diller said.

"If we were just doing what they are doing, I would give up," he added. "I actually believe what we are doing with Ask's tools is different enough to have a reason for being. . . . I am making a bet that there is room for others."

Among the tools Ask introduced yesterday was a mapping feature that provides both walking and driving directions -- and lets users click on "play" for a visual drive-by of any route. Also new is a "toolbox" people can customize, placing links on the home page to their favorite Ask services.

One thing that sets Ask apart from Google, in my opinion, is a set of query-refinement tools appearing to the right of results for searches with ambiguous meanings. Ask presents a list of possible interpretations and asks users to click on one to narrow or broaden their search.

On the right margin of its results pages, by contrast, Google still shows text ads. Moreover, since becoming a publicly traded company under pressure to boost revenue, Google has boosted the font size of its ads, so they now appear virtually identical to its regular search results.

Achieving a healthy mix of paid and natural search results -- and clearly identifying the two to users -- has long been a hot button in search. Ask, which used to be overly ad-friendly, has swung back to ad-shy again in an attempt to differentiate itself from rivals. For now it is showing fewer ads than the other top engines.

That could change, of course, because as Diller noted, search has been and will continue to be evolutionary, just like humans. That's the whole point of Ask's new ad campaign, which attempts to show computerized search tools evolving and features an orangutan, a primitive man and other creatures using the search service.

Since humans die, it should have come as no surprise that Jeeves would disappear from the Internet one day, too. But that doesn't mean I won't miss him, along with the whimsical dot-com era he represented.

Leslie Walker welcomes e-mail atwalkerl@washpost.com.

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