Ask Jeeves: This Butler Didn't Do It

The much-hyped search engine, flunked a test others handled with ease

When I think of butlers, what comes to mind is a stoic, loyal manservant who almost invisibly runs a household, relieving his master of pesky day-to-day decisions and serving as the confidant who never criticizes. Almost invariably, he makes the right choice (except when "the butler did it"). And he speaks with a clipped British accent--when spoken to.

So when I heard a butler was available on the Internet, I had to check him out. Could he live up to the movie butlers of my youth? Who better to resolve those nagging questions I could never pose to mere friends? Such as, "Why can't I wear brown shoes with a blue suit?"

SOARING STOCK. Perhaps my expectations were too high. "Ask Jeeves" (www. is a search engine that promises to respond to questions phrased in natural English instead of the keywords or precise Boolean expressions other search engines require. And he comes most highly recommended: When Ask Jeeves went public on July 1, shares almost quintupled.

But what a bumbling butler this is. I asked a series of questions, many of which he simply ignored, having no answer at all to offer. For some, he had the temerity to suggest that his ignorance was my fault, that I had misspelled something, which I had not. To his credit, after he took his feeble stab at each question, he also consulted better-known search engines, though Jeeves says he filters those "finds" to get rid of irrelevant flotsam. Separately, I did searches on AltaVista, HotBot, Excite, and Yahoo! to assess Jeeves's skill. The bottom line: Jeeves was outclassed by his more mundane brethren.

My first question was: "Who is John Crean?" Crean is the founder and former chairman of recreational-vehicle maker Fleetwood Enterprises. (He can afford his own butler.) He also has his own cooking show on public television. Jeeves drew a blank. Other search engines linked Crean to both the company and the show on their first page of results. Yahoo! produced nine correct responses.

Then I asked: "How do I make paella?" Jeeves passed on this one, too. His referrals to other search engines turned up a mixed bag of recipes, restaurants, and paella pans. By far the best results came from my separate inquiry on AltaVista, which also allows searches in question form. Its top 10 hits produced seven different recipes. That's what I asked for.

Ask Jeeves handles shopping questions slightly differently. In the movies, taking kickbacks from merchants would be grounds for a butler's dismissal. Jeeves cheerfully admits taking fees to feature certain companies on search results. His services are free to me, but even a virtual butler must make a living. I wanted one of those Walkman-like devices to play back music downloaded from the Internet, so I asked: "Where can I buy a Rio MP3 player?"

WRONG AGAIN. I shouldn't have been shocked when Jeeves whisked me off to the Sharper Image Web site, a provisioner of gadgets to the carriage trade at prices to match. But by questing for a handsome commission, Jeeves outfoxed himself: The upscale merchant doesn't even carry MP3 players. Yahoo! and AltaVista provided links to shopping bot www.bottomdollar. com, which let me find the cheapest supplier. A proper butler would have known that's more my style.

Finally, I asked Jeeves how many liters are in a jeroboam, something every respectable butler should know. Jeeves produced a useless metric-conversion table with no reference to wine-bottle sizes. When I typed "jeroboam" into search engines, I got wining and dining links that gave the correct answer (3 or 4.5 liters, depending on whether one pours a conventional or sparkling wine). At www., home of the International Guild of Professional Butlers, I found an "Ask Jeeves" E-mail link, presumably to a real butler fielding etiquette inquiries. I sent my question. The next day, I got a listing of all bottle sizes. This Jeeves also politely admonished that while I could pour from a three-liter jeroboam at table, there's a "fair chance" I'd ruin the tablecloth.

My advice? If you need a search engine, use a search engine. If you need a butler, find a real one. Ask Jeeves handles neither job with the confidence and savoir faire of a professional.

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