Ask Jeeves, the search engine with the butler mascot, wants more respect.
Known as an also-ran after Web search leaders Google and Yahoo, Ask Jeeves (www.ask.com) last week added a new preview feature that provides thumbnail images of Web pages it finds. (This works only in the Windows version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer.) Park the cursor over a binoculars icon that appears next to many of Jeeves's search results, and an image of that link's page will pop up in a small window.
"It eliminates the need to go pogo-sticking around the Web to decide where you want to go," said Jim Lanzone, Jeeves's senior vice president of search properties.
He said the company's database of preview images should cover more than 90 percent of the top 10 results. More obscure sites, however, might not have previews available for some time.
Lanzone said user tests suggest that previews reduce the number of clicks people need to find information by 50 to 70 percent. That seems surprising, considering how hard it is to read the text in many of these previews. Still, the images are large enough to give people a basic idea of a site's focus.
Ask Jeeves is a relatively small player in Web search, handling about 7 percent of all queries in the United States. To try to build on that audience, it has expanded its Web index and added many new search features. The new previews are one example; another is a batch of new shortcuts.
These shortcuts, like those added at other big search sites, let Jeeves automatically present particular categories of data in response to queries phrased the right way. The idea is to display information directly instead of making readers click through to other sites -- which, in turn, takes them away from the search engine's ads.
Type in a famous person's name, for example, and Jeeves offers a box at the top of the page with a mini-biography (from partner site Who2.com), photo and links to Web resources. Type in an ordinary Joe or Jane's name, followed by a city and state, and Jeeves will present contact information from telephone books.
Another useful shortcut works with movie titles: Type "Day After Tomorrow," and you can read a synopsis of the movie and see that only 46 percent of professional critics liked it. Still others offer wedding registry data, tracking numbers for Federal Express and UPS, sports results and even terror alerts.
Microsoft fired back at Yahoo and Google last week, saying it would raise the storage limits of its free Hotmail Web e-mail service from 2 to 250 megabytes, starting next month. That's more than twice the 100 MB of storage Yahoo now gives users of its free Web mail, but one-fourth the 1 gigabyte provided by Google's Gmail service (currently accessible only on a test basis).
"We think 250 megabytes is enough storage for people to grow into," said Blake Irving, a vice president with Microsoft's MSN division. If it isn't, a new $20-a-year option, replacing the old "Extra Storage" plans, will include 2 GB of room.
Microsoft also said it would provide free virus-cleaning to all Hotmail users, instead of just warning free users when attached files contain viruses.
Ask Jeeves, meanwhile, joined the e-mail giveaway last week by announcing it would expand the free Web-mail storage offered at three Web sites that it recently bought -- iWon, My Way and Excite -- to 125 MB.
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