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Ask.com Is Still at Your Service

Guess the sixth largest property on the Web, according to the latest comScore rankings.

Facebook? Wrong.

eBay? Nope. Those two Internet giants trail Ask Networks, which includes Ask.com, an early player in search that's still very much in the game. The latest comScore rankings for May of this year, show Ask with over 74 million unique visitors, just ahead of eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY) with 72 million.

"Our network of sites is the sixth largest property and that's up from 10th place a year ago," Scott Garell, president of Ask Networks, told InternetNews.com. Garell, a veteran of parent company IAC, was named president of Ask.com in January, 2008 and then president of the broader Ask Networks in May of this year. The Network includes Ask.com, Ask Partner Network, Ask Sponsored Listings and Dictionary.com.

Like other search competitors, Garell thinks its way too early in the game to declare Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) the hands down winner. "Search is still in its infancy," he said.

Garell said search companies are subject to the same competitive advances as other industries. "The CD player was better than a Walkman, then digital music came along and it was the end of the beginning," he said. "A lot more can be done."

While Google has become the de facto consumer search standard, he argues that user satisfaction may not be that deep. "People don't complain about Google, but you don't know what you don't know. For real innovation, there is room for substantial growth."

Ask, in its original AskJeeves incarnation, was an early innovator. The company still maintains its focus on processing more than keywords, encouraging users to ask complete questions, like "What's playing on TV tonight?"

Garell says Ask users ask longer queries than for other search engines. The company has done a lot of work with structured information, like TV listings, to increase the accuracy and timeliness of answers to most common questions.

"We've been focused on improving the basics of search, like giving the best answer the first time, every time," he said.

Racing for users

Ask is also digging deeper into vertical segments, becoming the official search engine of NASCAR for example and giving its fans access to all manor of stats and trivia related to the motor sport. Garell says the NASCAR market is huge, with some 75 million followers.

Gartner analyst Allen Weiner gives Ask credit for having good technology and "really smart people behind the scenes," but he's sees significant challenges ahead.

Ask is owned by Internet giant IAC, which also owns such well-known consumer Web brands as match.com, eVite and Citysearch. "Their association with IAC fooled a lot of people, including me," says Weiner.

"Years ago, I thought IAC's purchase of Ask would help them gain a unique position and gain from the association with the Home Shopping Network, CitySearch and mortgage companies, but that just hasn't happened," says Weiner.

IAC bought AskJeeves in 2005 for almost $2 billion in stock. Two years ago IAC spun off several properties, including HSN and Lending Tree.

"There's some good leadership at Ask, I'm just not sure the same is true at IAC," says Weiner.

He thinks it's going to be tough for a company like Ask to make headway in the face not only of Google, but Microsoft's revamped search effort, Bing, which is off to a good start.

Garell says he relishes the challenge.

"It's still early. We have a ton of users and continue to execute on our vision," he said. "The path to the future looks good. We're holding our own, while others aren't maintaining their share. We just have to be super hungry and aggressive."