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Ask 3D’s Answer To Holistic Search

The new Ask 3D kept pulling me in different directions. I first stumbled on it before I even read about the overhaul, was unimpressed, and then went back to whatever else I was doing as I needed to get something done and didn’t have time to play with it. Then I started getting to know it and liked a lot of what’s there with the different content recommendations that are customized to specific searches (the health search query in the column illustrates that). Of course, the more I tried to bang the tires, the more I found a few kinks in the system.

Originally I planned to call the column "Ask 3D: Just One D Missing," to denote that time is the most notable element needed to determine if it’s a winner. When I tried working that into the column, it just made it feel like I was writing too many endings. These columns go through several versions before they’re published – with any luck that’s evident most weeks.

Check out Ask 3D at ask.com. The column continues below, courtesy of MediaPost, and wraps in the extended entry if you’re just reading it here first.

* * *
Ask 3D’s Answer to Holistic Search
By David Berkowitz

Ask.com is up to its tinkering again with a new a look and some
twists on the search engine results page. Dubbed Ask 3D for the three
dimensions of searching (don’t ask — pardon the pun), the renovation
comes on the heels of Google’s universal search
update. Both offer the same moral: optimize around all major
specialized and vertical search services to get first-page search
engine visibility.

With universal search, the holistic optimization strategy stems
from Google incorporating video, local, and news search results into
the body of its natural listings. Ask.com’s approach is more akin to a
Chinese menu. Above or alongside Ask’s search results, it features
sections of links for news, videos, blogs, images, products, and local
listings, along with featured content from Wikipedia, Healthline, and
other sources. The supplemental listings vary depending on the type of
search. For instance, a search on “diabetes” prominently features
information and links from Healthline above the search results, but a
search for “insulin pump” just shows ads up top, while alongside the
natural listings there are images, a Wikipedia entry, a dictionary
definition, and blog posts.

As for paid listings, the advertising’s not as prominent on Ask.com
as it is on other search engines, as search ads only appear above and
below the main search results listings, but not to the right. Ask is
proud of this move, as it described on its blog:
“There are also fewer ads on Ask.com than any other major search
engine. That gave us more room on the page to devote to content and
tools.”

The room comes more from the page design rather than the number of
ads. For popular commercial searches such as “fathers day gifts” and
“hotel las vegas,” Ask returns nine ads, three above the natural
results and six below, compared to Google’s eleven, three above and
eight to the right. Yahoo tops them all, with twelve, while Microsoft
came in below Ask, returning varied numbers but not more than eight.

While Ask.com might not have the fewest ads of the major four
engines, it most likely takes the lead in having the fewest ads that
any consumer sees for every page of search results viewed. It would be
an interesting subject for an eye-tracking study. Such studies
repeatedly show that there’s an F-pattern for viewing Web pages, where
one scans the top left and darts right, then scans down and right a bit
more. For Ask.com, it means advertisers that appear below the natural
results are probably invisible much of the time, barring any surprises
with the eye-tracking.

The user experience with Ask 3D is different from the very first
characters one enters into the search box. When you enter a query
letter by letter at Google.com, it lists past queries you entered with
that spelling, assuming you’re not overly aggressive with your privacy
settings. When I entered “Paris Hilton,” into Google, what came up were
suggestions like Playa Del Carmen (from past vacation planning) and
Parrot Cay Turks Caicos (from current wedding planning) with each
successive letter. Ask, meanwhile, offers recommendations based on
other popular searches. The same “Paris Hilton” query brought up dozens
of other recommendations along the way, including Party City, Paris
France, and Paris Hotel Las Vegas. Ask.com demonstrates a degree of
leadership here, but Google has had this feature in the works since
2004, dubbed Google Suggest; it just hasn’t migrated to Google.com yet.

One of the more puzzling aspects of Ask 3D is its natural search
indexing. Several major sites don’t appear to rank as well for a number
of searches tested. For instance, for a search on Showtime’s “Weeds,”
the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) ranks second in Google but fifteenth
on Ask (below the fold on the second page of results). For a search on
“Black Swan,” the latest book from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Amazon ranks
first in Google but twelfth on Ask.com, again on page two.

The mother of all optimized sites, Wikipedia, also doesn’t tend to
rank as high in Ask as it does in Google. This is less of an issue
since Ask tends to give Wikipedia featured placement above or to the
right of the natural results for relevant searches. Wikipedia, by the
mere authority Ask.com places on it, clearly comes out ahead there, but
the natural search results remain suspect.

Ask.com trumps Google for other searches with its featured content.
A great example is a search for “Deal or No Deal,” where the top
featured result links to a summary and episode guide on TV.com and the
official site, schedule, and contestant application at NBC.com. The
first regular natural result goes to NBC, while the righthand column
links to images, Wikipedia, videos, and products. All of this should
give the searcher what he’s looking for right on page one, which is the
whole point of Ask 3D.

The ultimate test for Ask is whether it steals market share.
Ask.com has a proud history of innovating with its interface and search
tools, only to find other engines steal these features to improve their
own services. Other engines will be less likely to ape many of Ask’s
newest features, especially those that reduce the prominence of ads on
their results pages, and that’s just as well for Ask. Imitation isn’t
flattery if the imitators reap all the benefits.

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