Liz Gannes

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For, Foray Into Social Search Points to Mobile is in the process of reformulating itself, having dropped its algorithmic search offering and laid off 150 employees in November. The company is billing the changes, which came after a community Q&A launch in July, as a return to its “Ask Jeeves” question-answering roots.

I recently had a chance to sit down with President Doug Leeds, who was particularly high on the company’s efforts in mobile: A new iPhone app that includes the Q&A feature has been downloaded 250,000 times since being released in November.

(It might be premature to say mobile is the future of Ask, considering it has yet to launch apps on other mobile platforms.)

Refocusing Ask around Q&A on both the Web and mobile has already had an impact, even if it’s not fully rolled out. Leeds said 60 percent of Ask queries are in the form of a question now, up from 28 percent last year.

Questions are more monetizable than queries, he attested, because users stay on an page rather than clicking to zoom off elsewhere on the Web. Ask has found that users who have their questions answered are 50 percent more likely to click on an ad.

Social search offers a way to differentiate itself from the competition. Leeds said the company’s brand has long been a second-choice search engine: A huge percentage of Ask users go to Ask after Google fails to answer their query. That may not sound like something to brag about, but it’s made the company profitable, with consistent traffic as the sixth-largest U.S. site, at 90 million monthly visitors.

Ask doesn’t seem to get a lot of love within the halls of its owner, IAC, so it’s especially important for the company to grow its revenue, if not its traffic. Ask is hiring back 30 of the 150 positions it cut, for a total of 270 employees, said Leeds, who described the layoffs as a removal of satellite offices in order to consolidate operations at its Oakland, Calif., headquarters.

Leeds said that Ask has found social search works especially well on mobile, where, for instance, users can ask a question verbally using the free iPhone app with speech recognition, put the phone back in their pocket and wait for a notification saying that a real person has answered the question.

The median answer time for questions posed to the Ask community is approaching five minutes. That’s eons in search time, but the fact that the answer is created within those five minutes matters, said Leeds.

According to a Harris Interactive survey of mobile users sponsored by Ask, 66 percent of respondents said timeliness matters more when they’re not in front of their computer, and 40 percent of smartphone users said they’re more influenced by users’ opinions given within the last 24 hours than those from a month ago.

To be clear, Ask has not completely converted to social. Only 20 percent of visits are currently exposed to community Q&A, and only after users say they want to ask a question or a search has failed to produce results. That’s because Ask doesn’t want to overtax its human question answerers, said Leeds. The majority of Ask user questions are answered through a machine process of extracting information from multiple Web pages (similar to the word definitions, flight status information and real-time weather you’ll get at the top of the search results page if you look for such things on Google or Bing).

To recruit and retain question answerers, Ask has a promotion going where it donates 10 cents per answer to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. “Altruism is the best incentive,” said Leeds. “We don’t want it to be a game; we want it to be useful.” Today, 65 percent of questions asked through community Q&A get accurately routed to an answerer.

Next for Ask is a “nearby” feature of its iPhone app that will launch early next year. The ideal question, said Leeds, would be “Why is there a crowd over there?” Or users could ask about the current state of traffic on roads, crowding in a particular restaurant or whether they should be worried about that smoke they’re smelling in the air. Of course, for this to work well, Ask will need much deeper penetration than 250,000 iPhone users.

As it tries to get social, another limitation for Ask is it doesn’t have much of an existing membership system. Unlike, say, Yahoo, where users are virtually always logged in, Ask has never had a portfolio of products, just search. The company introduced a revamped log-in system in July, but it will have to get many more users to sign in before it can make use of personalization, social connections and network effects to get questions answered. (Hmm…isn’t this what Facebook Connect does?)

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work