Barry Diller, CEO, IAC/Interactive, has taken to extolling the IAC search engine property Ask.com as the “connecting glue” for IAC’s “integrated conglomerate” of diverse Web properties and services.
Jim Lanzone, CEO, Ask.com, however, prefers to see himself operating as a “chef” remixing content ingredients to create a better search experience for searchers on the Web.
Lanzone shared his vision for Ask.com with me yesterday in a wide-ranging conversation about AskCity, AskX, AskNews, Google…Below is a synopsis of our "Real Deal" talk (responses may be slightly paraphrased).
DB: Is Ask.com IAC’s “glue”?
LANZONE The vision for Ask, both internally and with IAC, is not just a website with a bunch of links to other IAC properties. We are a world-class technology company and we are able to take ingredients from our sister companies, luckily in many cases premium ingredients because they are number 1 and 2 in their category, and we can remix those ingredients into something that is market leading in a particular vertical. That is exactly what we did with AskCity.
We took ingredients from a lot of companies, but not just IAC companies, we mix it all together into the best local search product online. That is how IAC and Ask can really accelerate the curve for each other. At the end of the day it can be a virtuous circle, by driving them traffic. But as a consumer based product, especially one that is free, you have to lead with what is best for the user. That is our focus.
We have 30 million users in the U.S., we are the fourth ranked search site in the U.S. You can be fourth in search and still be much larger than people are in many other categories. AskCity was built primarily because local is a top five category in search and it makes up a big proportion of the billions of searches we get every year. We are simply trying to do a better job of helping people find what they are looking for, that is the primary reason AskCity was built.
A futuristic looking steel grey AskX user interface surfaced “mysteriously” last month within Ask.com. Diller touted it as a “new search concept which has the chance to really change habits and adoption.”
DB: What is the AskX strategy? Will AskX be rolled out in Q1?
LANZONE The AskX website is a testing ground for what the next generation of Ask.com could be. AskX.com is the sandbox area and slowly but surely will be migrated over to everyday Ask.com users starting at some point in this quarter, but we have a lot of testing to do still. AskX is the potential future interface of Ask.com or potential future experience for Ask.com.
Ideally, the best things that are on AskX will migrate to Ask.com for the everyday user. AskX will remain for us as a sandbox to help experiment with new experiences. The Ask.com interface could potentially change, even our home page will potentially evolve over time.
For me, the way I think about it is taking search from one dimensional to three dimensional, that is the aim of the experience that is currently on AskX and we have a lot more where that came from.
What is happening with search now, it has been so one dimensional. It hasn’t changed in years, its been stuck in this blue link interface for so long. But the amount of content has evolved, the types of content has evolved, the tools we have been building that can help you find things faster have evolved and we needed an interface that can weave all of that together without confusing the user. That is the aim of AskX and it is what we have in AskCity.
The search box on the home page has a gravitational force. People seldom go deep into verticals themselves. We have been successful with letting you type in whatever you want, and then be there ready with the right thing, at the right time. The homepage of AskX is still simple and clean, the way to get started is really not broken. We are increasing the number of search result suggestion tools with AskX.
Thanks for stumbling upon Ask X, our double-secret sandbox for testing Ask experiences of the future. In today's version of Ask X, you're not just getting back a list of links, but a slick, new three-panel interface (much like the new AskCity), combining great time-saving features like:
Ready to power up and help shape the future of Ask.com?And remember, this is a secret so shhhhhh...you were never here.
- Left: A search control panel that stays with you, complete with Zoom Related Search and Search Suggestions that update as you type.
- Middle: Results front and center to provide clutter-free information without having to scroll down the page, and Binoculars to preview results.
- Right: A preview of other types of search results, including video, news, images, blogs, shopping, encyclopedia and more.
DB: What is the news about AskNews? Will it be launched this quarter?
LANZONE We don’t have anything to announce now. Like local, news is a top five category in search. If we are going to continue to grow against some pretty strong headwinds, it is something we need to do very, very well, and it is something we think we have inspired ideas for. There is no timeline for when we will launch it.
Are you considering acquisitions?
We are always looking and evaluating, but the bar is pretty high for what would make sense for us. I don’t see that many companies day to day that for Ask itself could move the needle in any significant way, but when we see them like with Bloglines, we pounce.
It is a funny time for valuing start-ups. Companies can have traffic which is valuable, they can have revenues which are valuable, companies can have technology that advances us beyond from where we are today that is valuable. But we are certainly at a time where companies are getting well funded which increases their expectation for their return. So getting that all balanced is tricky, unless a company is an absolute no-brainer.
DB: On January 1, 2008, will Ask.com have renewed its paid listing supply agreement with Google?
LANZONE We have to do what is in our short and long term best interests, we have to focus on ROI. We are in the early stages of evaluating that. Google has historically paid the most... they can give a better deal to potential partners.
We control about ten percent of all search queries in the U.S. (between Ask.com and our distribution network). Ten percent is a lot, but it is not the 50% that Google has, or the 25% or 30% that Yahoo has, or what Microsoft wants to build.
We will most likely strike another deal with one of the major networks (Google is the incumbent) because our own ad system combined with an ad network will make us the most money. It is going to be a significant deal. We will be the ones with the power in the relationship because we own our traffic, ten percent of the market.
We are going to make the best decision, between IAC and Ask, the best overall decision we can make.
Lanzone underscored Ask.com’s principal aim of growth by building “the premium search experience”:
LANZONE Our focus is on helping you accomplish things, we are not trying to take over the entire Web. We have done a better job then our major competitors in staying focused on the number one user need on the web, which is search. Our challenge will be to stay focused.
The biggest way that Ask can grow is by increasing the frequency of usage, by having more of our users convert to becoming primary Ask.com users as opposed to what Ask was in the very old days with Ask Jeeves, an occasional use question and answer site.
The investment by IAC in helping us build our products out and letting people know about it in a very noising market has been working so far. We’ve gotten the investment and we are focused on our product development, we have a pretty unique vision for it.
Lanzone concluded our conversation with a personal pitch for Ask.com search:
LANZONE Don’t be brainwashed. You are probably not using the best search experience you could be using, despite conventional wisdom. Use Ask.com and tell your friends about it.
Lanzone told me that he is “a product guy first at heart.”
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