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Ask Says Bye to Butler

Ask Jeeves was one of the earliest Internet brands with its online-butler-at-your-service metaphor. But now the company says its technology advances merit a re-branding to better help users understand its features and benefits.

On Monday, Ask Jeeves officially changed its name to Ask.com, giving itself a sleeker look to match the abbreviated moniker.

The new front page has been stripped down, with the search query box prominently featured. A Toolbox column along the right-hand side offers shortcuts to specialized searches, such as shopping, weather, dictionary and local. The Toolbox can be customized by users to add or eliminate a total of 20 items; items can be reordered, as well.

"Ten years ago, they branded with Jeeves the Butler and … his ability to answer questions using natural language processing," said Brian Massey, senior product manager Ask.com. "Over the last five years, Jeeves has moved on."

The company found that the emphasis on natural language queries -- wherein someone would type, "What is the capital of Italy?" -- caused people to visit the site only occasionally. In an effort to grow its popularity, Ask.com made the decision to focus on keyword search technology, purchasing Teoma in 2001.

Teoma's technology not only ranks search results on general popularity, but also on the number of subject-specific sites that reference it. It also identifies and displays clusters of related sub topics.

Ask Jeeves continually trumpeted its advances, such as Zoom and Web Answers, introduced in May 2005, but it had trouble getting its message heard above the noise from Google , Yahoo and MSN.

"Jeeves [the butler] represents, that old product and old messaging around question and answering" Massey said. "The product really has changed, and people aren’t seeing that as much as we would like them to."

Ask.com was acquired by IAC Search & Media, a wholly-owned business of IAC/InterActiveCorp, in March 2005 for $1.85 billion.

It's not just the messaging and design that's changed. The new site includes an enhanced mapping service with an AJAX-based interface. Location pins can be dragged from location to location, and the application will then recalculate directions based on the new pin position, even if the user doesn't have a street address. Users can build itineraries of up to 10 consecutive locations, get directions and practice the route on the map.

There's an aerial view developed from aerial photography; Massey said it provides more detail than satellite imagery. Users can also opt for walking directions, which calculate the route ignoring such car obstacles as one-way streets.

Finally, Ask.com switched to proprietary image search technology, which, combined with Teoma, provides better image search results for ambiguous queries, according to Massey.

Massey pointed out that the new interface shows fewer ads than any of the other major search engines do. Ask.com shows only three sponsored links above the natural search results. The Toolbar takes up the real estate most other search sites use for keyword ads.

Massey said the strategy was to accept lower revenue per search in return for more traffic and more searches, and drive more traffic by improving core search.

To make sure people know about the improvements, Ask.com will launch an ad campaign created by Chiat Day on March 8, with Web and television ads inviting searchers to see what’s new.

At its most ad-heavy, Ask Jeeves' natural search results were pushed below the bottom of the screen.



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