Ask.com, which took a lot of flak last March after new CEO Jim Safka made the search engine sound as if it would target women, relaunched Oct. 6 with a new user interface, faster search results and what it hopes is better relevance for users using semantic search technology.
Bloggers all over the country have read Ask.com its last rites, which is just fine for Safka and Co., who believe they can make Ask.com a viable brand again by going back to its roots.
Those roots include being the premier site for answering visitors' questions in Ask.com "high volume" categories such as entertainment, health, jobs and reference.
However, Ask.com is offering these groups along with its newer Ask3D universal search aesthetics, aggregating news, blogs, images, videos and music search results in addition to standard blue links.
I spoke to Tomasz Imielinski, executive vice president of global search and answers for Ask.com, last week.
Imielinski is convinced upgrades to the company's search technology have paved the way for significant advancements in Ask's core relevance. This means fewer clicks for visitors to find what they are looking for, both answers to questions and general searches.
For example, try a search for "How do I get rid of my love handles?" and Ask.com will feed you an answer directly so you don't have to click through to find the answer.
Ask.com, like Hakia, Microsoft's Powerset and other search engines, is also leveraging semantic technologies to divine the broader realm of meaning behind search queries.
Entertainment searches have been seriously upgraded. For example, Ask.com can now answer questions such as "What NFL games are on TV next Sunday?" and the search engine will present local channel and time information on the results page. Ask.com's TV listings cover more than 100,000 shows and are updated daily.
But where the semantics come in is analyzing the word order of the questions. While the NFL question probably makes the most sense to humans, you could garble the order for Ask.com and get the same result, according to Imielinski. So if you phrase it, "What Sunday games from the NFL are scheduled?" you should get the same results.
"One of the challenges is to make search engines invariant to the way you phrase the query, so you can't break it," Imielinski said.
The increased search relevancy could help Ask.com. In the past, Ask.com users went to get questions answered, but left for Google or Yahoo or Microsoft to get general search queries answered.
If Ask.com is as improved as it has shown me in a brief sampling, its high-volume entertainment, health and reference patrons may be induced to stay on Ask.com for general search. Imielinski agreed:
""We want to be, in terms of relevance of keyword search, on par with other search engines. We don't want to differentiate there. The verticals I showed you [entertainment and health] and the questions are kind of the invitation to the store. In the window, you see great things, but when you come inside you also see great stuff so we don't want you to leave.""
Ask.com also launched a beta of a new Q&A channel, where Ask.com creates a framework to search for Q&A content from the Web. These results will be blended into Ask.com's core search results and through a new independent channel here.
These search technologies may be new, and time may tell whether or not the better relevance will help improve the Ask.com search engine enough to lure more users.
I appreciate Ask.com's efforts and lament the fact that the "women's search engine" tag practically launched Ask.com into the dead pool. Ask.com may not be saying it wants to outgun Google, Yahoo and Microsoft in top-line search anymore, and with a paltry 3.5 or 4 percent of total search share, this is wise.
That Ask.com's improvements will make a difference for the IAC search business is a long shot, but why not? Stranger things have happened in technology.