Ask3D: Answers Google With Something Different

You have to hand it to It’s not rolling over in the face of Google’s rising dominance in search, even as some folks wonder if other rivals like Yahoo! are (though I don’t think so). Tonight, it’s debuting an entirely new search site (still at that looks and works quite a bit different from Google’s. “The search page still looks like Altavista in 1996,” Ask CEO Jim Lanzone told me. And he’s right. Good as Google is, even its execs will admit that search has a long way to go. That means the interface as well as the data and the algorithms.

Ask3D has several interesting features that do indeed take search beyond Google’s still starkly simple search results page. Whether that will appeal to the masses is another matter. No one, including Google, has an unassailable lock on search. But I’m doubtful that the search giant, which continues to tweak its own search, is going to lose much ground anytime soon.

Essentially, says Lanzone, “we’re reducing your need to hunt and peck.” Ask3D has a three-panel page, with results in the middle, a left pane that lets you refine searches—with useful suggestions of new word pairings—and a right pane that offers up content well beyond regular Web pages. Using a new algorithm Ask calls Morph, the third pane features videos, music clips, recent blog posts, news, events, business listings, and dozens of other forms of content appropriate to the subject you’re searching.

So, is it better than Google? Honestly, I can’t tell you yet. The personalization features in particular are hard to judge from a few hours playing with a demo account. That’s something Google has been focusing on more too, so it’s probably unfair to compare the results before I’ve plugged in more personal info and let the Ask engine target me that way.

I do like the fact that you can potentially access more information right on the search results page without clicking around so much. This extra information is presented in a way that for the most part doesn’t look too cluttered. It’s also convenient to see a relevant video or hear a song clip without clicking somewhere else.

On an admittedly random selection of searches, I found the results inconclusive. Sometimes Ask was better than Google in terms of zeroing in on what I think most people would be looking for with those terms. In a search on “New Mexico,” both Ask and Google displayed several of the same pages in the top results, but Ask conveniently had a list of ways to narrow the search on the left pane and, even better, current weather, time, and news images (mostly state Governor and Democratic president hopeful Bill Richardson) on the right pane.

In other cases, the results still weren’t as good as Google’s. A search on reggae singer Don Carlos brought up similar (though not identical) sites on Ask and Google—a few on the singer but others on similarly named hotels and Spanish princes. But the extras on Ask (like a dictionary definition of a Spanish pretender to the throne, as well as non-relevant news references) just got in the way. (A search on my own name didn’t actually turn up any references to me in the first page of results, while Google’s displayed several stories and blog posts of mine, as well as a BusinessWeek bio.)

Nonetheless, it’s nice to see some risk-taking. As analyst Greg Sterling puts it, “They have to differentiate. Anyone in the third, fourth or fifth position has to take a chance.” I don’t know that Ask will become my main search engine, but I’m going to make an effort to give it a run.

More detail at TechCrunch—Mikey likes it.

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