Ask CEO Jim Lanzone Interviewed By The Guardian

I came across an interesting interview today conducted with Ask’s CEO, Jim Lanzone. This among conversation on the web this week that search marketers are beginning to take more notice of Ask when implementing their SEO strategies. I have always liked Ask, even when the butler was on board and have always included them in any SEO strategy.

They currently enjoy the fourth position in the market, holding a 5% market share. The interview looks at how Jim became part of the company and ended up in the position he currently holds and his insight into Ask’s future. Here are a few excerpts:

How did Ask Jeeves evolve into the Ask we see today?

The Ask Jeeves product then was editorial based with editors literally coming up with answers and creating a “technology” that would match those answers to certain questions. But then, frustratingly, you would also get back a list of more questions. The concept was revolutionary but it over-promised and under-delivered. Compare that with search engines that weren’t promising anything and over-delivering!

We saw that the only way to answer billions of searches was with technology and an index of billions of documents, so we had built the wrong product for search. So we got rid of that original Ask Jeeves product and replaced it with the Teoma product that we bought in late 2001. Teoma could layer across the majority of queries, and then we went about building a second generation of structured data search, which we call Smart Answers.

Why are they so far behind in market share, is it the algorithm?

That is true about our algorithmic search but I would also say we have the most upside potential because we are five years younger than Google. We started our search technology in 2001 with seven people. Google was started in 1996 and got to market in 1998, and by the time we were doing search they already had 100m searches a day. So they were far ahead in terms of life cycle, and then Yahoo bought Inktomi and AltaVista and larger companies.

What we have is probably what I would call the best special sauce. We do the hardest part well. What we don’t do well enough yet are the basics, the ingredients, the infrastructure of search that requires a lot of manpower and a lot of resources and a lot of trial and error. So I think about it like we have gourmet chefs who have been using worse ingredients to make a search engine.

Can ever catch up with Google?

I think that is the wrong way to look at it. I think this is not a zero sum game. Search is a very large market, in fact the largest online market. So even though we are fourth in search we are seventh ranked overall web property in the US, ahead of New York Times, Amazon and MySpace for user numbers. They have more page views but search isn’t about page views.

For us, every point of market share that we gain is very significant. A 1% gain for our competitors means they might be making a quarter of what we are making in new revenue. So if we go from 6 to 7% share, it would be 15% in revenue growth.

Has reducing the amount of ads that were displayed in the past hurt revenues?

The model is making more money by having more searches conducted on our site as opposed to making more money per search. So, sell more copies of the newspaper rather than having more ads per newspaper.

Will Ask expand beyond search like Google and Yahoo has with non-search applications?

The big difference for us is that we are going to stay focused on search. It is still the number one need, it’s the doorway. We are going to continue to build great doorways, not destinations. The product roadmap for us is to be able to find stuff that you’re looking for faster, whether it’s content, commerce or community. Our first job is to become a preferred primary search engine. Now because search engines are naturally hubs to the Internet, people may want email from us as a matter of convenience, but it’s nowhere on our roadmap today. If there was demand, I could see us building it, but I don’t see us getting into the content business. Our job is to search content, not provide it.

Finally, how does Jim sees search evolving?

Some 75% of clicks into a search engine happen in the top three results and 90% of users never go beyond the first page of results. So when you see it saying “now searching number one through 200,000″, people are only looking for 10. And although 40% of people say they want “advanced search”, less than 1% use it. So, our search suggestions on the right hand side of the page give you those clues right there. So, if you type in John Lennon, we give you Yoko Ono.

That’s some good stuff! Click here to read interview in its entirety.

David Wallace

David Wallace, co-founder and CEO of SearchRank, is a recognized expert in the industry of search and social media marketing. Since 1997, David has been involved in developing successful search engine and social media marketing campaigns for large and small businesses. Follow +David Wallace on Google + as well as Twitter.

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