As the No. 4 search engine, Ask.com may not have anywhere near the market share of Google, Yahoo or MSN, but it's determined to best its competitors in another crucial way: privacy.
The division of IAC/InterActiveCorp Dec. 11 turned on AskEraser, a privacy control that dumps information about users' search queries within a few hours.
This is an extreme departure from Ask.com's previous data retention policy and those of its rival search engines, which hold onto user data to mine it for keywords they may use to better tailor ads to users.
Unless users turn on AskEraser, Ask.com stores data about user searches for 18 months. Google and Microsoft still cache user search data for 18 months; Yahoo and AOL hold data for 13 months. This is too long for some privacy advocates and federal regulators, who insist that the data is susceptible to leaks or theft by hackers.
AskEraser, for U.S. and U.K. users now and for other regions in 2008, is easy to turn on. Users click on a link to the tool that appears in the upper right corner of the Ask.com home page and then click the "Turn on AskEraser" tab.
To read more about Ask.com's new interface, click here.
When AskEraser is enabled, all Ask.com cookies are deleted from a user's browser on that computer. This includes IP address, user ID and session ID cookies, as well as the complete text of search queries, across all Ask.com search areas within hours.
Ask.com's search algorithm "remembers" that users have AskEraser turned on and the tool will remain active on that machine for 24 months so long as users do not clear their Ask.com cookies. After 24 months, users must turn on AskEraser again.
While AskEraser might be an obvious, easy privacy tool to enable, it is not a silver bullet for every user. For example, AskEraser only works for searches executed through Ask.com's search box; it does not work for users who access Ask.com through a search toolbar or an Ask search box on a third-party site or application.
Moreover, while AskEraser deletes search activity from Ask.com servers, Ask.com cannot delete search activity from the servers of third-party companies that receive search queries to provide users with certain aspects of its search results, sponsored search results and other product features.
For example, in a recently renewed agreement, Google provides many of the text-based ad links on Ask.com's pages, so some information about search requests and clicks will still end up on Google's computers—and are therefore subject to Google's search query retention policies—even when AskEraser is turned on.
Read more here about Ask.com's search for collective intelligence.
Also, users of AskEraser cannot use certain personalization options available on the Ask.com site because these options require Ask.com to set cookies. Features that won't work when AskEraser is turned on include home page skins and MyStuff, which lets users save Web links, images or other content from search results.
Even so, if AskEraser is a hit, it could pressure Google, MSN and Yahoo to implement something similar. Indeed, AskEraser is a big step for Ask.com, which is banking on such features to boost its relatively small search market share.
Through October, researcher comScore placed Ask.com as the No. 4 search engine with 4.7 percent of the market. Google led with 58.5 percent, followed by Yahoo and MSN at 22.9 and 9.7 percent, respectively.
In the near future, Ask.com hopes to further differentiate itself from the larger search vendors by fusing collective intelligence capabilities into its algorithm. Collective intelligence builds on users' previous keyword searches to help the proceeding users more easily find what they are looking for.
Check out eWEEK.com's Search Center for the latest news, views and analysis on enterprise search technology.