Ask has the mojo to double its search market share

Ask is aiming to double its market share in the search and judging from AskX may just have the mojo to do so. On a conference call Dec.

Ask is aiming to double its market share in the search and judging from AskX may just have the mojo to do so.

On a conference call Dec. 19 Interactive Corp. (IAC) chief Barry Diller outlined the company's outlook for the year ahead.

A few takeaways:

--Ask's big goal is to double its search market share. The rub: IAC didn't provide a time frame. Diller said doubling share would take "a few years at the most" and that's a reasonable bet. To get there, IAC is planning to market Ask heavily both offline and online and integrate it with other portfolio companies. The company expects to finish 2006 with 25 percent query growth.

--IAC plans to innovate with Ask properties. The company has launched AskCity, which ties together Ask and its other properties. IAC also is testing AskX, a new search interface that's pretty slick overall. Management noted that AskNews is to launch shortly after AskX--in other words, really soon.

--Ask will be the glue connecting Interactive Corp. properties such as CitySearch and Ticketmaster.

The big question: Can those moves really double Ask's market share? It's a tall order, but not impossible especially with players ahead of Ask (notably Microsoft) stumbling. If Ask doubled its share it would have a little more than 5 percent, according to Nielsen/Netratings' latest search market share figures

As Diller noted you can't argue that Ask is a differentiated product, but the hurdle is changing behavior. For instance, I gave AskX a spin and came away impressed. But five minutes later I was back to Google. There's a reason Google has market share anywhere from 50 percent to 70 percent in search.

All that said, I'm willing to use AskX more. I may even point it out to a few people.  Maybe AskX becomes a secondary search to Google just because it's new. If AskX gains more of my searches, Yahoo would lose some share. There's no way I'm going three-deep on search engines.

Diller said:

"I actually think word of mouth works. If you have a good product people will find it, but we're not going to leave it at just that. We actually have some ideas that will resonate. We're going to change people's habits. It is not easy to do, but I absolutely believe that good products, good marketing and word of mouth are going to get us there."

To spark some Ask usage IAC has hired ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky to get out the message.

Look for IAC's message to get out more in 2007 as the Ask roadmap unfolds. The roadmap looks like this. AskX formal launch in first quarter (Diller said January, February or March) followed by the debut of AskNews. From there, Ask will tap into other IAC properties such as financial services like Lending Tree.

"The roadmap for ask is fairly deliberate," said Diller. "We have this plot to roll out all of these integrations. What we think we'll have is a good search engine, but unique to us is an enormous amount of value added services. Ask will become a virtuous circle of information and commerce." 

Add it up and Diller said Ask should "continue to extend growth next year."

Whether Ask does manage to double share remains to be seen. One thing is certain: Diller's IAC will have plenty of doubters. Wall Street analysts are neutral at best on IAC's prospects and don't buy the company's outlook for Ask.

"IAC continues to be very aggressive/optimistic about its search properties, although we did not hear anything to change our skeptical view," said Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney.