Ask Jeeves Zooms in on Relevance

Ask Jeeves unleashed Zoom, a related-search tool to help searchers narrow or expand the topic, and Web Answers, which provides answers to explicit or implicit questions.

Two new features that went live on Ask Jeeves reflect enhancements of the search service’s core technology as well as a push to help users find relevant results faster.

Zoom is a navigation tool that appears to the right of search results, letting the user zoom in or out on the concept. When appropriate, it lists topic suggestions appear in three categories: Narrow Your Search, Expand Your Search and Related Names.

“For us, related topics is second-most used product on our site, so it’s really important to us to make the product better,” said Ask Jeeves product manager Young Mi Chun.

Zoom uses the clustering ability of the company’s Teoma search technology, which breaks the Web into “communities” of topics. The technology identifies relationships between the communities, and then groups them conceptually.

For example, when a searcher types in an ambiguous word like Bush, if natural search results relating to the U.S. president aren’t what’s wanted, Zoom can help narrow the search to information about the band, song lyrics, the White House and something else.

On the other hand, the searcher could widen the topical net to include Iraq, the American flag or the Republican party. Since there is plenty of Web material showing this word is a name, Jeeves also returns related names, in this case including Kerry, Saddam and Clinton.

Other search providers, including Vivisimo and Grokker, also group search results by topic. (Grokker delivers results in graphical maps rather than lists.) In January, AOL revamped its search, licensing Vivisimo’s tech to provide a list of topic groups to the side of natural results.

Chun said that Ask Jeeves communities differ from Vivisimo’s clusters because Jeeves analyzes the contents of Web pages to identify concepts, while Vivisimo uses keyword frequency to name its clusters.

Search rival Yahoo also offers related topics. In the Raleigh search, Yahoo offers a list of associated topics, such as Raleigh bikes and Raleigh chopper, at the very top of the results, followed by two sponsored results. Google Suggest, still in beta, automatically fills in a list of expanded queries that appear in below the query box, using a predictive text method. Users can scroll down through the list to find the town, the bikes, etc. AOL offers a similar feature in its search.

The other search enhancement is Web Answers, which aims to provide direct answers to questions contained in queries, rather than supplying lists of links to pages on which the answer might be found. Jeeves already offers Smart Answers, which are pulled from third-party structured data sources. Web Answers are culled from the Web itself.

“With our Smart Answer technology, we’re finding partners and content that is very structured,” said product manager Ryan Massie. “Web Answers uses our knowledge of the Web to find answers from the communities Teoma is building and from Web content. It identifies that a snippet is the mostly answer to the question and brings you back the answer to the query.”

In addition to the Web Answer the technology identifies as most relevant, a link to more Web Answers is included directly to the right.

Web Answers may be triggered by questions or words such as who or where, as well as by superlatives such as longest or deadliest. Like Smart Answers, when the automated technology identifies a potential Web Answer, it’s labeled as such and presented as the top organic search result. In company tests, Web Answers improved the click-through rate on the top search result by over 200 percent, indicating that the top result was the most relevant.

“They started off with the promise that you could ask a question and get an answer,” said Chris Sherman, editor of SearchDay, which is owned by the same corporation as “They’ve finally realized that vision in a true technical sense.”

It’s unclear, however, how big a role search technology plays in attracting users. According to Internet market research company Nielsen NetRatings, in March 2005 Ask Jeeves was a distant fifth in share of total searches, handling just 1.8 percent.

“I think Jeeves users are a lot like Apple users,” Sherman said. “They’re not in the majority, but they tend to be very loyal.” Still, he said, the new functions are genuinely useful. “Google doesn’t offer this; Yahoo doesn’t offer this. It might encourage some people to try Jeeves.”

There’s another reason Jeeves needs to highlight concepts: Often, natural search results are all but obscured by sponsored links, which appear at the head, sometimes pushing all organic result off the screen.

“They’ve acknowledged the problem, and they’re grappling with it,” Sherman said, adding that the pending acquisition of the search provider by IAC/InterActive Corp. could lead to more changes. Said Sherman, “I think the intent is to build Jeeves into a true contender.”

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