Ask.com, returning to its roots, on Tuesday launched a new limited test version of a search engine that will shift the site's focus back to answering questions.
Way back in 1996, when Ask.com (then AskJeeves.com) provided an image of butler Jeeves with every query box, the site's focus was clear: serve as a place where users could search the World Wide Web with questions typed out in natural language, the way we normally seek out answers, in contrast to just a string of terms.
A decade later, the search engine retired Jeeves and its old Q&A model in favor of a more traditional model, seeking to compete with the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Now, in a year where social Q&A sites like ChaCha, Quora, and Yahoo! Answers are benefiting hugely from unprecedented leaps in social media usage, Ask.com has realized it was really onto something in 1996.
“There are still some things that Google doesn’t do very well,” said Doug Leeds, president of Ask.com. “They are just trying to get you in the neighborhood of an answer. We want to deliver that answer."
“We’re not just relying on getting users to the right website—though that remains a part of it—but we’re getting answers from other users’ heads. In other words, we have the ability to draw on the Ask.com community to address questions for which no published answers exist.”
The Ask.com community, 87 million monthly members strong, will be a boon for finding answers to user questions.
Additionally, the company has spent a year fine-tuning its algorithms with data accumulated from Q&A sites like ChaCha and Yahoo! Answers, which amounted to over 500 million questions and answers.
If an answer can't be found among the community or the company's own database, Ask.com will turn to experts to settle questions.
Though Ask.com might have been the first to come up with the idea years ago, the company will be hard pressed to make that count for anything now, when the booming social space has sprouted all sorts of Q&A sites.
Quora, co-founded by previous Facebook CTO Adam D'Angelo and Facebook engineer Charlie Cheever, provides a brilliantly elegant interface for answering questions. Google, never one to shy away from aggregating all the world's information, paid $50 million in February for Aardvark, another social Q&A site. Finally, Facebook, the current king of social networking, appears to be working on its own Q&A service.
It will be a fight, but, after all, Ask.com was the originator.