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    Leslie Walker
    ".com" columnist Leslie Walker
    .COM LIVE

    Hosted by Leslie Walker
    Washington Post Columnist
    Thursday, August 26, 1999 at 1 p.m.

    Welcome to ".com - Live," a real-time, moderated discussion with people shaping business strategies for the era of electronic commerce. This week you can ask anything of the man behind Ask Jeeves, the Internet's colorful digital butler. Our guest is Rob Wrubel, chief executive of Internet search service Ask Jeeves Inc.

    Named after the fictional butler created by novelist P.G. Wodehouse, Ask Jeeves is meant to put a human face on the maddening process of searching for information on the Web. The service answers everyday questions by providing links to Web sites chosen by real people. "Am I in love?," for instance, sends you to LoveCalculator.com, where you can enter your name and the person you're wondering about for a quick guesstimate. "Where can I find advice for writing business letters?" sends you to a Purdue University Writing Lab document about how to put a positive spin on everything.


    Rob Wrubel

    Ask Jeeves also builds custom versions of its question-and-answer service for corporate Web sites. Toshiba directs customers to its "Ask Iris," while Dell greets troubled users with a Doonesbury-esque helper named "Ask Dudley."

    We talked about how Ask Jeeves works his magic, what the most popular questions are and whether Jeeves really produces any better search results than the sophisticated search algorithms of services such as AltaVista. Wrubel was online live at 1 p.m. on Thursday, August 26.


    Transcript Follows


    Leslie Walker: Hello everyone and welcome to our Web talk show. We're delighted to have Rob Wrubel with us today to talk about his digital butler, Jeeves. I can tell from the questions you're submitting that we're going to have fun. But let's start with the basics, because even know-it-all butlers have their serious side.

    For those of you unfamiliar with Jeeves, here's a thumbnail of his owner, AskJeeves Inc. It is an Internet search service company based in Berkeley, Calif. that attempts to help people find information fast online. It collected $3.8 million in revenue during the six months that ended June 30 and in July sold its first stock to the public, raising nearly $45 million. The shares showed one of the biggest IPO gains ever, jumping more than 300 percent in a matter of hours.

    I do hope everyone knows we are talking to Jeeves's keeper, the real Rob Wrubel, and not the fictional Jeeves here today!!


    Leslie Walker: Rob, how exactly does Jeeves know what he knows? When I submit a question on your site, what does he do to find answers? Also, can you say how much of Jeeves's IQ is automated, and how much involves real people making human judgments.

    Rob Wrubel: Jeeves is unique in that he learns from the questions being asked by people every day.
    Jeeves responds to 1.5 million questions a day, helping Jeeves know what people want to know.
    We use that information to build an enormous database/knowledgebase (roughly 10 million questions today) with questions that Jeeves knows the answers to. Each of the answers is filtered and selected by an editorial technology and system we use to guarantee quality.

    Jeeves is a very automated system that leverages human editors, who use powerful tools to build our knowledgebase, learn from customer questions, and to guarantee the quality of the answers.

    We firmly believe in integrating human editorial judgement to do what software can never do, create a human-like interaction.

    The reason our service really works is that Jeeves focuses on the questions people want answered, and he gets smarter every day in response to the questions people are asking.


    Leslie Walker:
    What are the key differences between the technology Jeeves uses to pick Web sites and that of competing search engines like Inktomi's or AltaVista's?

    Rob Wrubel: The biggest difference is that everything in our technology is built around listening, analyzing and learning from the questions people ask Jeeves every day. We then use an editorial system with people using very powerful tools to find the best answers to those questions.

    The result --- you ask a question and get an answer or several good answers, not a long list of 1 million responses or a bewildering array of directories to search through.


    Potomac MD: I have used your site and like it a lot. But how do you make your money to pay for the service and all of the radio commercials I hear? If you don't make money, then won't this tool cease to exist?

    Rob Wrubel: Ask Jeeves makes money through two sources. Our consumer service at Ask.com makes money through advertising and sponsorships. The second way we make money is by providing a question-answering service to corporations to help them improve the interaction with customers on their Web sites.



    Norfolk, VA: How does Jeeves know which words in the sentence you ask are the key ones--those most relevant to what you're seeking?

    Rob Wrubel: Our natural language software looks at the semantic and grammatical structure of a sentence. Jeeves sees the keywords or concepts then tries to see them in their proper context and then uniquely maps all of this to a large network of concepts and grammar that reflects the way people really speak and communicate in the real world.

    Jeeves learns from these questions, so that he can get smarter about how people use language.


    Reston,VA: How long was it from the time you first came up with the idea for your site and the day you went live on the net?

    Rob Wrubel: The idea for Jeeves came in 1995. The site went live in early 1997. We spent a lot of time making sure Jeeves was pretty smart before we let him socialize.


    Washington, DC: What are you doing to make Jeeves smarter?

    Rob Wrubel: The really exciting part of what we do at Jeeves is learn from question that is asked of Jeeves. We capture all the questions people ask analyze them according to words, phrases, concepts and construction. THe most important information are the questions Jeeves didn't answer or didn't know about --- that's what is fed into our editorial system and then put into the knowledgebase.

    Jeeves has gone from 30,000 questions to 10 million in the past 18 months.


    Rockville, Maryland: Rob,
    Since your site answers are provided by real people, how are the people behind the Ask Jeeves site recruited and what type of people do you look for?

    Rob Wrubel: The people who work at Jeeves are drawn from all kinds of disciplines in life. We try to get people who have great domain knowledge --- music, history, shopping, finance, medicine. Some are doctors, medieval poetry expert, information science specialists. But they all have one interesting skill ---- they love doing crossword puzzles. That's because they need to think in terms of natural language queries.



    Silver Spring, MD: It seems like your company's core competency is based on the search engine. Do you incorporate or link up with other search engines out there already, or is the system a separate customization? And what kind of cost is associated with building such a system?

    Rob Wrubel: We use a technology known as metasearch which takes a users query and then sends it to search engine partners to draw results from their services. This helps provide a great assortment of possible answers for any query that is posed Jeeves.

    The cost is not great --- we have several really brilliant engineers who are the world's best at thinking through that problem.


    Arlington, VA: I think the most aggravating thing is that your system doesn't answer the question but simply refers the reader to other secondary sources which probably they already know.

    Leslie Walker: I guess one question here would be why Jeeves can't directly answer the question instead of just referring people to Web sites that may or may not contain the answer?

    Rob Wrubel: We really want Jeeves to help point people to great sources of answers on the web. Part of what our mission is to answer the specific question the other really important part of what we do is to enlighten our users to possibilities they had not thought of. There is such great content on the web we want to do a better and better job of pointing people to great answers.


    Rockville, Md.: Which search engines or companies does Jeeves consider his direct competitors?

    Rob Wrubel: Jeeves consumer service "ask.com" really competes with all web sites that are trying to capture the time and attention of really busy people on the Internet.



    Norfolk, VA: How does Jeeves know which words in the sentence you ask are the key ones--those most relevant to what you're seeking?

    Rob Wrubel: Our natural language software looks at the semantic and grammatical structure of a sentence. Jeeves sees the keywords or concepts then tries to see them in their proper context and then uniquely maps all of this to a large network of concepts and grammar that reflects the way people really speak and communicate in the real world.

    Jeeves learns from these questions, so that he can get smarter about how people use language.


    Reston,VA: How long was it from the time you first came up with the idea for your site and the day you went live on the net?

    Rob Wrubel: The idea for Jeeves came in 1995. The site went live in early 1997. We spent a lot of time making sure Jeeves was pretty smart before we let him socialize.


    Washington, DC: What are you doing to make Jeeves smarter?

    Rob Wrubel: The really exciting part of what we do at Jeeves is learn from question that is asked of Jeeves. We capture all the questions people ask analyze them according to words, phrases, concepts and construction. THe most important information are the questions Jeeves didn't answer or didn't know about --- that's what is fed into our editorial system and then put into the knowledgebase.

    Jeeves has gone from 30,000 questions to 10 million in the past 18 months.


    Rockville, Maryland: Rob,
    Since your site answers are provided by real people, how are the people behind the Ask Jeeves site recruited and what type of people do you look for?

    Rob Wrubel: The people who work at Jeeves are drawn from all kinds of disciplines in life. We try to get people who have great domain knowledge --- music, history, shopping, finance, medicine. Some are doctors, medieval poetry expert, information science specialists. But they all have one interesting skill ---- they love doing crossword puzzles. That's because they need to think in terms of natural language queries.



    Silver Spring, MD: It seems like your company's core competency is based on the search engine. Do you incorporate or link up with other search engines out there already, or is the system a separate customization? And what kind of cost is associated with building such a system?

    Rob Wrubel: We use a technology known as metasearch which takes a users query and then sends it to search engine partners to draw results from their services. This helps provide a great assortment of possible answers for any query that is posed Jeeves.

    The cost is not great --- we have several really brilliant engineers who are the world's best at thinking through that problem.


    Arlington, VA: I think the most aggravating thing is that your system doesn't answer the question but simply refers the reader to other secondary sources which probably they already know.

    Leslie Walker: I guess one question here would be why Jeeves can't directly answer the question instead of just referring people to Web sites that may or may not contain the answer?

    Rob Wrubel: We really want Jeeves to help point people to great sources of answers on the web. Part of what our mission is to answer the specific question the other really important part of what we do is to enlighten our users to possibilities they had not thought of. There is such great content on the web we want to do a better and better job of pointing people to great answers.


    Rockville, Md.: Which search engines or companies does Jeeves consider his direct competitors?

    Rob Wrubel: Jeeves consumer service "ask.com" really competes with all web sites that are trying to capture the time and attention of really busy people on the Internet.



    Washington, DC: I already know how to use search engines. How does Ask Jeeves benefit someone like myself who does not need to ask for something in question form?

    Rob Wrubel: Ask Jeeves is used by heavy search engine users who want an answer fast and might not have time to construct a boolean search query or traverse dozens of directories in a directory service. Also, Jeeves approach is great at enlightening people to possibilities rather than have you stare at a list of a million possible right answers.


    Reston, VA: How many employees do you have?

    Rob Wrubel: In our second quarter statement (I have to be so official about these matters) we had about 260 employees.


    Los Angeles CALIF: What are the hardest kind of questions for Jeeves to answer?

    Rob Wrubel: Many people want Jeeves to answer very, very specific questions that aren't frequently asked by the large population of users on the Web. Example: The side effects of anti-bacterial ointments in populations of five year olds in sub-sahara africa.
    That;s very domain specific and very infrequently asked.

    Now if enough people ask that question Jeeves will learn to answer it.


    San Francisco, CA: What do you think are the biggest challenges the Internet faces as it tries to become a viable platform for profitable businesses?

    Rob Wrubel: Ahhh, the biggest challenge is taking this fantastic medium -- the most powerful one created in the last several hundred years --- and making it accessible to mass consumers. Normal human beings.

    That's where we come in. Let people interact with this medium the way they do with real people -- make it easy, relevant, and intelligent.

    If we can do that then people will find the answers they are looking for, they'll learn about new possibilities for their life, careers, etc and they will be more effective at getting things done.


    Boston, Mass.: Do you have any patents on your natural-language query system? Or have you applied for them?

    Rob Wrubel: We've applied for patents on the unique process of matching a parsed query to a large knowledgebase of pre-existing, dynamically related question templates and their associated answer templates.


    Pittsburgh PA: How do you expect Jeeves to change in the coming year? Portals-search engines are not going to survive in the current form of today. Where do you think this technology-business is going?

    Rob Wrubel: Remember we have two business services --- corporate and consumer. You will see Jeeves truly extend its paradigm throughout the web so that people can have question-answering interaction with web sites all over the Internet.

    THe web is becoming more personal, and more relevant to individuals' needs. At the same time, people are finding the sites and the brands on the internet they want in their lives. That means more and more of the interaction will happen at vertical interest sites and places that treat people and customers very well.

    The technology/internet business is going to re-wire the world's economy. It's going to fundamentally change the way companies interact with their customers and their employees.

    THis is big. And we've only started.


    San Francisco, Calif.: I read somewhere that 70 percent of your revenue now comes from the consumer search engine. I wonder whether you expect the corporate search services to overtake that in time?

    Rob Wrubel: Our corporate services business is experiencing very rapid growth. And so is our consumer service. So it's very hard to predict.

    What will be really powerful is when we show you the power of the two businesses combined.

    THe Ask Jeeves Answer Network --- Just wait. Answering everyone's questions no matter where they are on the web. The most powerful system for connecting people's needs and desires with companies content, products and service.


    Leslie Walker: Out of your 260 employees, how many are spending their time evaluating Web sites and figuring out how to match them with appropriate questions?



    Also, over the long haul, as the Web continues is exponential growth, how is the human-editing model going to keep pace? Won't it be too costly?

    Rob Wrubel: About 140 are involved in our editorial system --- from constructing our knowledgebase. The main growth in that group is in the number of people who are helping corporations building customized services for their web site.

    THe human model will absolutely scale for a number of reasons.

    1) Most human beings ask the same questions over and over. so if you listen to what people ask you will always be able to tune a dynamic system like ours to the questions people want asked.
    2) Our tools will be turned into a simple product that any domain expert can use so that we can leverage the great experience and knowledge of people around the world to build our knowledgebase. That is the ultimate goal --- search services have to capture the expertise, linguistic context and knowledge of people who know things --- engineers, pediatricians, salespeople. etc


    Reston, VA: What is your own educational background and what kinds of previous experience did you bring to Jeeves, and are you a Wodehouse fan, and, if so, how do you REALLY pronounce that name -Wodehouse, not Jeeves-?

    Rob Wrubel: I'm a complete Wodehouse fan.

    I was a history major at Yale. I was an editor of financial magazines and books, then went to Knowledge Adventure, an educational software company to help transform the world of technology and education. Then came Jeeves.

    My whole career and life has been about helping people get answers to their questions --- when that happens they are empowered to do things and improve their lives. When you do it really well companies and consumers develop very natural and profitable relationship with one another. That's how you change the world and create wealth.


    Capitol Heights, MD: What's the startup cost for a internet service like Ask Jeeves. I like it very much and am interested in starting something similar.

    Rob Wrubel: The initial start-up cost is incredibly low --- unless you consider the lost hours with family and friends --- then it is quite high. Getting the site up and live only involved a few really, really smart dedicated, somewhat obsessed people.
    Now after that growing the business rapidly is another matter. That's where VC's and the IPO come in.


    Sterling, VA: Just to test Jeeves once, I asked what the flying speed of a swallow was, and Jeeves asked if I was having problems with my throat. How do you teach Jeeves to deal with synonyms, nouns and verbs and adjectives, sentence construction, and so on, and if I asked Jeeves the same question later today, would he have learned to ask me which kind of swallow and in what weather conditions?

    Rob Wrubel: Jeeves gets better and better at synonyms with the more people use the service. Sometimes it will take a day or a week to get that information into the system.

    We have so much more great intelligence to deploy in this area --- constantly learning from people then applying some really advance linguistic technology that we have cooking up in the lab.


    Leslie Walker: We are more than halfway through today's show, folks. Keep those great questions rolling in!


    Leslie Walker: How impartial is Jeeves? I guess it would be impertinent to ask if Jeeves takes bribes, so let's just call them tips, ok? Seriously, your site discloses that some merchants may get preferential placement for payment. Can you tell us how often and to what extent Jeeves's answers are influenced by money paid by the sites?



    And do you put any kind of a disclaimer on the page showing when it's a paid link, or are paid and unpaid links indiscriminately mixed together?

    Rob Wrubel: Ah, the question of editorial integrity. Thank you Leslie.

    ALL of Jeeves answers are selected by independent editors.

    The one area that has confused some people is our shopping service which we launched three months ago. When people ask a shopping question they get a list of editorially selected shopping site. In some cases, some shopping sites pay Jeeves as well as other site a lead generation fee based on someone clicking through to the answer. Jeeves will receive this money, but it does NOT influence his editorial judgement. WE have indicated this in Jeeves editorial policy.

    But this is a sensitive issue and we test it all the time with our users. Very critical to respect the boundaries of church and state.


    Clearwater Fl: I just tested your site with an advanced search that I was working on a couple of weeks ago, and noticed the same limitations that I encountered with the others. Being that I received replies referring me to ".com" web sites as opposed to the ".edu" results that I was really looking for.
    Is there any plans in the future to extend the search to be more amendable to the individual doing serious research on the web?

    Rob Wrubel: Absolutely. We will be expanding the service with greater capabilities to help the advanced search user.

    THe best way of course will be to engage experts like you in your field of study and have you build our knowledgebase with us through an easy to use tool. Just wait.


    Mclean, VA: How big do you hope to get with Jeeves?

    Rob Wrubel: The world is full of questions. We believe that answering questions, engaging people in a dialogue of problem solving and education is at the center of everything we do as people and what companies do with their customers. So we have a very, very big vision for answering questions and connecting people's needs and interests with content, products and services.

    Very big vision


    Arlington, VA: Does Jeeves have any weaknesses--tender spots, as it were?

    Rob Wrubel: Jeeves tender spots are always areas where someone didn't get a good response to a question. We are constantly growing and expanding in response to what people are asking. THis is great work in progress, but we always want to do better. Jeeves is very, very determined to succeed in helping provide the best service. He hates not knowing.


    Silver Spring, MD: Of your two services -Ask Jeeves and your custom design software for companies- which do you find most profitable and what made you decide those two very separate avenues?

    Rob Wrubel: Well, we can't really talk about which one is more profitable because of those strict financial rules and regulations.

    We decided on the two avenues very organically. We launched the consumer service in 1997 and noticed the questions being asked and many of them were questions we knew had to be asked at corporate web sites. We then moved aggressively to serve that market and found companies' desperate to transform the experience of their customers on their web sites.


    Reston, VA: You notice how these questions I'm asking you are really long, rambling, maybe even run-on sentences, but you still get to the essence of the question and that's what you answer each time--so how does Jeeves deal with questions like this, or does he, and if you've already answered this question but I just wasn't paying attention -because I'm at my desk at work doing this still taking phone calls and reading various not-so-interesting bits of the Federal Register and so on- please forgive me, and if I didn't end my question with a question mark, would Jeeves still know it was a question?

    Rob Wrubel: jeeves loves nice reasonable sentence. THe longer complex constructions can baffle old Jeeves. But not for long.


    Gaithersburg, MD: What made you decide to turn your focus onto the retail market as well as the consumer market -Ask Jeeves vs. Ask Iris-?

    Rob Wrubel: The need for corporations to transform their web sites into the front line of interaction with their customers is enormous and growing every day.

    Companies' web sites are going to become the central repository of a company's knowledge. It will be the central point of transaction and intelligence gathering for customers.

    Company web sites will radically change everything about the enterprise.

    Ultimately, all of the traffic and dollar volume on the web will be at company web sites. WE wanted to provide the easy, relevant and intelligent interaction for all of that activity.


    Sterling, VA: Do people ever ask questions that lead you to believe that what they really need is a kind listening ear like a counselor, or an individual response like an Ann Landers- type columnist? And what do you do in such cases?

    Rob Wrubel: That's the most fascinating aspect of Jeeves. Our mission at the company is to humanize the Internet. Every day I see questions like "Am in love" "What should I wear on a blind date?" "Am I depressed?" It's so powerful. Jeeves is really a cultural enterprise. And guess what there are web sites and people on the Internet who can answer those questions or provide counsel. Jeeves tries to connect those questions to those people.


    Harrisonburg, VA: I've noticed that AltaVista also offers similar capabilities to Ask Jeeves, but I don't use it very often because it doesn't filter out enough irrelevant sites. So my two questions are 1- What other, if any, differences are there between AskJeeves and AltaVista, and 2- How does Ask Jeeves filter out irrelevant sites?

    Rob Wrubel: Alta Vista uses Ask Jeeves technology. That's why it feels similar.

    We have a licensing relationship with Alta Vista in which they use some of our question-answering service to handle natural language queries on their site.


    Leslie Walker: How much data do you collect about what individuals search for-do you drop a cookie so you can follow each person and collect a search profile that over time allows you to target personalized ads at them? What other uses might you have in mind for the search data?

    Rob Wrubel: We track the dialogue people have with Jeeves --- the questions they asked, the questions they followed up with, and the questions Jeeves didn't answer. We use cookie data to keep track of the questions. And get better at servicing people in a more relevant personal fashion.


    Leslie Walker: We have to wrap it up now, folks. These have all been good questions.


    Rob Wrubel: Thanks everyone. This was great. As you can imagine I love answering questions, and learning from every question asked.

    I've got to go now.



    Leslie Walker: That is all we have time for today, folks. Sorry we couldn't get to all your questions, but we're not as fast as Jeeves! Thanks to our guest, Rob Wrubel, who joined us today while he was on the road in Boston. We hope to have him back again one day in the future.

    In the meantime, please join us again again in two weeks for the next edition of ".Com Live."


    Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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