Ask: The Little Search Engine That Couldn't

Published on October 6, 2008
by John Paczkowski

With a 4.8 percent share of the search market, according to comScore, Ask has long been the inveterate fourth-place contestant in a sector overwhelmingly dominated by Google (GOOG). And try as it might–with both redesigns and ad campaigns–the company just can’t seem to build any audience beyond that. So there’s little reason to believe that Ask’s latest redesign–its third in as many years and the 11th since it first launched–won’t be as ineffective as those that have gone before it.

The new Ask is faster than its predecessor. Its search results are more relevant and sharpened by structured data (TV listings, etc.) where available. And the little search engine that couldn’t is still using semantic technology to interpret and answer questions put to it by users. “To call it an all-new Ask is wrong; it’s an evolution of Ask,” said Barry Diller, CEO of Ask parent IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI). “I think it’s going to help us primarily in [visitor] retention and frequency. That is really its goal.”

But while it might appeal to some, Ask’s latest iteration isn’t likely to make much of a difference in the brutish battle for search engine market share. But then Ask doesn’t need much, does it? The search business is enormously profitable. As Microsoft’s (MSFT) Don Dodge once noted, every market-share point in search is worth a billion dollars or more. So if Ask manages to boost its share of all searches even slightly, it’s a success. “Search revenue for us is very profitable and it’s certainly growing,” said Diller. “Does it matter whether or not we take big chunks of…market share? No. Would we like and hope to? Yes.”

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