Ask.com: Innovation doesn't always pan out

Ask.com in the last year or so had been a nice little Petri dish.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Ask.com in the last year or so had been a nice little Petri dish. It launched AskCity, tinkered with its interface, created universal search results and became a credible alternative to Google. The problem: Ask.com couldn't grow its base of users.

With that backdrop, Interactive Corp. (IAC) is cutting 8 percent of Ask.com's workforce, or roughly 40 jobs, reports The Wall Street Journal (Techmeme). The layoffs come as Ask.com retreats to its roots--delivering search results based on questions. Ask.com will also target its core female audience.

Ask.com's retreat shows how hard it is to change habits. Aside from my life without Google experiment I rarely visited Ask.com. The site--and the search results it produced--was fine, but I'm a creature of habit and Google is in my Firefox toolbar. My behavior is one reason Google is the top dog in search. It's not lock-in as much as it is lazy-in (I'm too lazy to seriously switch).

In the end, the Ask.com retrenchment is a bit of a shame since the search provider did cook up some nice features. I also wonder if Ask.com gave its effort enough time. But if no one beyond the digerati used Ask.com what's the point. Ask.com's search share is flat with a year ago and hasn't broken 5 percent despite the big plans of Barry Diller's--CEO of IAC. In December 2006, Diller said he thought that word of mouth, slick features and a little advertising could get people to change their Google habits. Ask.com would be the glue of Diller's Web empire. Wrong. Very wrong.

In a nutshell, it's back to the drawing board for Ask.com. But it's unclear whether the search engine can deliver growth with its new strategy. Perhaps Ask.com could be sold to a rival looking to gain some market share like Microsoft. Ask.com would certainly come cheaper with fewer headaches than Yahoo.

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