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Ask Tests Advanced Search UI

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Richard MacManus stumbled on AskX.com, a testing user interface for Ask’s search engine.

Ask X, which is being offered up to random Ask searchers, features a UI more advanced than that being offered on any current mainstream search engine, although the features are mostly the same as on the current Ask.com.

Ask X switches to a three-pane interface, moving the Zoom feature to the left. Zoom, which uses clustering to move to more or less specific search queries, is a killer Ask feature that usually gets ignored, because of its placement where ads are usually put. This move alone is a brilliant one, exposing the feature and hopefully encouraging more people to use it. The search box is also contained in this left pane (not wasting the top of the page, list most engines do), and it uses a search suggestions feature, just like Google Suggest.

The middle pane contains the search results, topped by a small text ad or two. The ads take up very little space, and they are the only ads on the page. I’m hoping, for Ask’s sake, that the ads have good CTR rates, since they either might get more notice by users who are looking more deeply at the advanced search engine, or less notice by the advanced users who would be using it. The search results are the same results you usually get, along with thumbnails of the landing pages, a link to add to Ask’s MyStuff, and topped by a smart answer when one is available.

The right sidebar, instead of containing advertising, is filled with results from other Ask search engines, including Blogs, News, Images, Shopping, Maps, Video, RSS, Weather, Dictionary, the current time, as well as Wikipedia. The ordering and choice of these additional results is contextual, and very on target. For example, a search for Joe Namath has Images, News, Shopping and Wikipedia, while a search for New York has Current Weather, Current Time, Images, Maps, and Dictionary.

Compared to Google’s Searchmash, Ask X looks to have been made several years after Google’s. While Google’s advanced search engine has even more white space while keeping the same layout we’ve used for the last ten years, while Ask’s has lots of advanced features and a great UI I could get used to on a daily basis. The right sidebar alone is a great improvement, helping you to use multiple search engines without having to choose one beforehand. Ask has eliminated the tab as a UI metaphor, and completely improved the search experience. I expect the changes in Ask X to affect UI design throughout the industry in the future, and if they finish this project and make it the new Ask, they will be seeing a lot of new users and a larger slice of the market share pie.

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There are a few things to note: For one thing, Ask X doesn’t break the Back button, even though the page never reloads. The search results, once the page has initially loaded, continue to load in the same window, like a good AJAX app, but the Back button still works and the URL updates, like a great AJAX app. Also, there is a bad tendency for the cursor to jump back into the search box when loading search results, which is annoying and breaks the flow, especially making it difficult to navigate with the keyboard.

More at Search Engine Land, Gary Price (who has a lot of inside info on it), and Lisa Barone.

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Nathan Weinberg writes the popular InsideGoogle blog, offering the latest news and insights about Google and search engines.

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