Ask Jeeves Inc. almost seems to relish its underdog status in the Web search engine world. Its smaller than its top competitors, and its often been overlooked as the media and Silicon Valley ogle searchs revival.
The Emeryville, Calif., company has been rapidly launching new ways to view and organize search results, through its so-called “Smart Search” and “Binoculars” site-preview feature. It doubled its market share after acquiring Interactive Search Holdings Inc. in May. And most recently, it matched Google and Yahoo in the Web e-mail storage race.
For all of its new moves, though, Ask Jeeves crown jewel may well be Teoma. Teoma is a search-engine technology that Ask Jeeves acquired in 2001, and the company uses every opportunity to point out that it owns its own search technology. And to claim that its more innovative than Googles.
In a recent chat with eWEEK.com Senior Writer Matt Hicks, Ask Jeeves CEO Steve Berkowitz left no doubt that he believes the future of search still depends on technology—both for Ask Jeeves and for the industry. He also signaled a future where users access search in new ways, where more structured information becomes accessible and where Ask Jeeves holds its own against growing competition. Time will tell.
Web search has become bigger and bigger news, especially with the increased competition from Yahoo, Microsoft and Googles IPO plans. You guys are somewhat smaller, but one of the only other companies out there with pure technology. Looking forward, what is the main way you plan to compete in this burgeoning field and to differentiate yourselves?
I think you hit it right with the word “differentiation,” when you realize that theres only three search technologies left out there today. Theres Yahoo Search, which is Inktomi, theres Google and theres Teoma. And then theres going to be MSN at some point in time.
Were going to compete partly because our search technology is different and the results we get back are different. We look at the Web in a different way, we see it in a different way [and] our technology sees it in a different way. You need to have a search technology to compete.
When you look at the world today, you see a lot of search destinations. But a lot of those search destinations are built on the back of someone else … You look at the AOLs of the world and the Earthlinks and any of those ISPs that are having search. Everybody is building it around these three technologies, with the exception of MSN, which is realizing it cant risk not having its own.
The foundation starts at search … Its the connection point. You cannot have a great search experience without the ability to do broad-based search, which is what index search or algorithmic [search] drives.
The second thing, as you look at the world of information delivery, is that people like to get at information in different ways. A lot of it depends not so much on the demographics you are, because I think this is almost demographic-neutral. One of the great things about search, going on a tangent for minute, is that search is a great equalizer.
You can have kids in Ghana who go to an Internet café, where the per capita income is a dollar per day for 85 percent of the population, and you can have this kind of access. So, search itself is a great thing and a great business.
What Searchers Want
But when you say that people need to get their information in different ways … One thing I wondered is that today most search engines are providing all users the same view into search depending on the terms they enter …
Thats not true. If you type in the same term, not the most popular term, you are going to find that Teoma gives you back a different series of results than Google or …
And thats not what Im speaking to. Im speaking to [the fact that] you dont differentiate me as a user from any other user. Are you looking at any ways to now, upfront, say, hey, Im looking at business issues versus …
There are three or four ways to look at it. The first way to look at it in my mind is theres a package you put around, lets call it, the global search experience, that kind of generic search experience. And Ask.com is now adding a whole set of features around index search …
For example, now, if you go to Ask.com and type in “Best Buy,” were going to give you back a smart answer— right to that URL. Were going to get more intuitive around search. Thats one way you do it and thats at the macro level, and thats the area that Jeeves has excelled at, and I think were going to continue to move that around the ISH brands as well.
The next piece of the puzzle comes around that people also, when theyre very familiar with a subject, may not want all the bells and whistles that Jeeves supplies, like related search or smart answers. They may just want to get in and out fast. So, you have a clean experience like My Way or My Search. There are different ways you can lay out the page.
Then it gets into this whole idea of knowing about you. Theres a couple of ways to do that. The first way is to look at the masses of people, so you understand that today when people type in Ronald Reagan, theyre more concerned about his funeral and maybe his history than they are about the airport. You know by how people are clicking and what theyre doing and really what I call the movement of herds of people …
Then theres the idea that I can target you by where you are searching from. So, by understanding your IP address, I can know that youre in London or know that youre in Northern California and may even know that youre in Berkeley. And I can start targeting you on a local level by knowing that session anonymously where you are searching from.
Then, of course, people start talking about this idea of personalized search, which is, “Give me all your information, and I will customize it. And I will track all your searching habits and know what youre interested in.” I think that thats kind of stretching the envelope a bit, and that starts to push a lot of buttons in people that theyre concerned about and I dont think its necessary to do. You dont need to have a lot of detailed information to make search better and better and better.
Thats from the personal perspective, but then you have it from the vertical perspective … The new buzzword is local search. I wish people would stop talking about local search because what local search is is a subset of global search.
Its a filter in a sense, right?
Exactly. And when you go to Jeeves and type in “weather” in Berkeley, were going to give you that its 47 degrees and sunny, and heres the five-day forecast and the seasonal weather patterns. Thats local search, right? But people dont think of it as local search.
We did a new smart answers for movies where you could type in “Shrek 2,” and what youre going to do is get a review of “Shrek 2.” And if you put your zip code in it will give you all the local theaters that are playing the movie and the times. Thats local search, but thats intuitive local search. Its not about me knowing anything about you but about me dialoging with you around the search box.
Thats really where this business needs to go. It has to go more around this idea of dialoging around the search box and getting a better give-and-take relationship with the user. You add that to great technology, and you get a great experience.
As opposed to, youre saying, having logins or some kind of means of tracking you?
You can do it. I just think it can create a whole slew of problems for you. People clean cookies off their computers, people are worried about spyware and adware … It really takes a long time to develop trust with a consumer. I mean, look, Google announced Gmail thinking they had the best brand in the world, the most trusted brand in the world, and there was a backlash.
You mentioned using IP addresses as a way of figuring out location. To what extent are you guys using that technology? Ive heard about it from Google …
Theres Digital Envoy out there, and a lot of companies out there that license that technology to people.
Have you implemented it?
Yeah, we do it for a couple of different things on our site. Its very important, especially as you get into local and geo-targeting. Its all going to be an important step, again, in that anonymous view of the world. Youre just one of many; youre not an individual person.
I read an article yesterday that people are now getting concerned because based on your cell phone, [people] can find out exactly where you are. With satellites, they can actually see you. We just have to realize that we have to take our time, we have to do it right and we have to be very concerned about the privacy of our customers.
I wanted to move a little bit more into the acquisition because I know you guys finished that at the beginning of May. It really increased your distribution, your market share. It doubled from [the acquisition]. How much of the decision to acquire Interactive Search Holdings was really a plan to just increase market share versus do you see it adding some kind of new technology or services for you?
First of all, it absolutely is about market share. If you walk around this office and ask people what their mission is, its about market share. We believe we have a great product, and we want to get it in front of more consumers. Thats easy.
This is a company that didnt have any of these registration systems, didnt have e-mail, didnt have any content connections. This allows us now to go at the user with lots of different experiences. But again, with search being centric to what were trying to do.
So, by picking up a portal like My Way, we now have a very clean portal. It has content feeds, it has e-mail, it has registration [and] it has a personalized home page. It gives us the ability to connect with the user in different ways. We need to be a full-service kind of house, but we want to do it all from that white box.
Our goal is to get everybody to enter the Web through the white search box. We saw great properties and some undervalued brands in there. But its really about [the fact that] theyve got ad-serving technologies, theyve got portal technologies, they have desktop technologies, they have e-mail technologies [and] they have registration. It gives us all these assets that we as a small company could start to build on.
But as you said, theres a lot of services that Ask Jeeves itself has never had. You hadnt offered consumer e-mail or any of the portal services. So, are you looking, moving forward, to have all these brands out there, or are you looking for ways for all of these services to merge together?
Were going to keep the brands out there because we think theyre great. And were going to try to merge the technologies to offer a lot more services. But our goal is to really find ways to give the consumers what they want in different wrappers, in different shells, with different content [and] with different ways to get at that content. But really build off platforms.
We want to build out an ad-serving platform, we want to build out an e-mail platform, we want to build out a search platform. We want to build out these platforms so we can apply them both domestically and globally across a lot of properties …
The Interactive Search Holdings group of Ask Jeeves, are they remaining separate divisions?
No. What were going to focus on is [having] the business in three buckets. Were going to focus on sites, so were going to manage the destinations. Although theyll be different, theyll be managed by the same group of people. So, the same person managing the My Way portal is managing Ask.com [in an] underneath-the-umbrella kind of thing.
I want to be able to leverage the technologies, but I also want to be able to make sure the user experiences are different yet compatible. Were going to manage the business from a desktop perspective, which is, “How do I get more applications onto the desktop?”
And then, Im going to build out an advertising services business around the fact that I now am doing quite a bit of revenue directly and not just through Google anymore. I have MaxOnline, which is a rep group. I have the Ask Jeeves syndication network. So, I am now allowed to leverage my sales organization and start selling for lots of sites.
Especially on the desktop, I know that theres the toolbar that some of the companies you acquired had and that you had as well. So, what else is there?
Search is so many things out there as we start to look at the world. Search needs to be an end-to-end function. Its about information retrieval, so I need to be able to build applications that help me get people to the desktop … give people that entry point into information.
When we talk about the Web today, were talking about unstructured data, which is the idea that the Web is an aggregation of content. The only structure on the Web is the social network of the Web, which is the way people link to each other. Thats how you define the importance of a Web site [by] how its linked to another Web site.
Then you have this whole structured world of content, which is content that exists in your personal databases that youve developed and content thats in structured databases like catalogs, and even the Yellow Pages. All these informational sources, we need to be able to access. And thats where I think the desktop search will come into play in terms of building applications that dont just search the Web but search other structured databases.
Eight-five percent of the information is in databases not accessible by the Web. So, we need to find ways to access that information, and some will come from the Web [and] some will be downloaded on your desktop. We just need to be able to create multiple access points for people.
Today, though, do you actually have a desktop application for desktop search beyond the Web?
Right now, we have toolbars mostly that go into the browser, and we will be developing applications over time that eventually go onto the desktop in other ways and through other applications.
On the ad side, I know advertising is really important for revenues. I think you guys are also around 95 percent of revenue from ads …
Our whole business is ad-based, either direct or through sponsored links. The model is its free to the consumers … I kind of define it as the real estate of the mall. Our technology brings consumers and content providers together, some for free and some for pay. The great part about search is that advertising, if done properly, actually is content. Thats where the future of this business goes.
More recently, a lot of your revenue was coming from providing another avenue for Google AdWords …
We still are, and a lot of revenue comes from that. But that gets back to the idea that our business model is that advertisers want our traffic because its so valuable. The fact that today it happens to be Google, tomorrow it could be ourselves or Overture. Its all about our ability to convert for advertisers, because the information were delivering to consumers is valuable.
How important is it to you to create more of a direct relationship with these advertisers? And can you do that now with the acquisition?
I still need to grow. I have two concerns about the industry. The biggest concern we face as an industry is that we all are aligned on one thing—Google, Yahoo, MSN. Our goal has to be to move dollars from the offline world to the online world. So, it may be in my self-centered best interests to have my own systems, but if we do that, were going to make it more difficult for advertisers to move into this space.
If they have to go to 27 different places to do the same thing, where they cant consolidate their bidding and it isnt the most productive … It isnt going to do anybody any good to have that happen in this industry. So, theres kind of, in a sense, a very strong co-opetition idea.
Our single most-important issue for us is [that] we probably have 15 percent of the consumable media. Were equal to almost any other media in the amount of time people spend in front of the technology. But we only get 2 percent of the ad dollars. We need to bring that in line because we all benefit if that happens…
Theres really three legs in the stool of this business. Theres the user, theres the technology that enables users and then theres the advertiser. Were very strong on the first two, and we need to build up that third leg over time …
At the end of the day, if the worst thing that happens to me is I become the alternative to the other engines, Ill be very happy with that market share.