Shifts Their Focus

    March 6, 2008

ask logoA few headlines have popped up today with the good news. I spoke with spokesman and VP Nicholas Graham in a personal interview today to clarify Ask’s announcement earlier this week.

The idea that we’re going to become a ‘women’s site’ is not correct,” says Graham. Ask says that the original AP report had an erroneous headline, and it’s pretty much been downhill from there.

But the reality is that:

what we’ve found from our research is that there’s a sizeable group of our core user base that is women. This core audience comes for certain types of searches, certain categories—reference (dictionary, thesaurus, etc.), health and entertainment. Our new strategy is to focus on building up our ability to render good answers in those categories for our core audience.

Graham emphasized that will work on providing answers “quicker, faster and in a more meaningful, scaling way.” (I can see the new slogan now: “Ask. Get answers.” Love it.). Providing answers, however, doesn’t mean that they’ll return to the natural-language, ask-us-a-question model that’s so last century. They’ll continue to work on improving their answers for queries on generic, single-word terms, statements and questions.

The best news of all, of course, is the news that “the idea that we’re not going to be a search engine anymore is not correct. We’ll continue to cater to all sorts of people who come to search. . . . We’ll continue to be a great search engine, but a great search engine with a new focus.”

While today’s statements may sound dangerously like the “realignment” or “refocusing” buzzwords that some so dreaded, I believe Ask when they say that they’re not abandoning search or seeking to alienate any of their users. Instead, they’ll “continue to cater to all sorts of people who come to search.”

However, they have decided to strive toward an “emotional connection with our core audience.” Acknowledging that it’s not wise to try to be all things to all people, and that people are looking for differentiation in search, Ask will focus on their core audience, who comes to them three times as often as they do other search engines, because that’s where their core growth is.

They’re “not giving up on bettering Google,” but trying to

become the first place that customers come to when seeking answers. We’re going to be the best at that; we’ll be the first place that they come to for that. We’ll keep bringing them back in a strategic and meaningful way.

Naturally, if they’re successful in this, these efforts will be good for marketers working through Ask as well. Focusing on a “highly active, dedicated and loyal” core audience can help marketers understand their traffic and what kind of appeals they should make to them, in addition to increasing traffic from Ask.

Graham acknowledged that they’ve seen some great successes with the innovations from 2007, including Ask3D, and they’ll continue to innovate in search in 2008—and we should watch for exciting announcements from Ask in the coming weeks and months. They plan to “innovate in a way to connect emotionally with users who know us and love us and have done so for a long time.”

CEO Jim Safka did mention a community-generated answers aspect to Ask and Graham confirmed that some user-generated content will become important in “building answers.” He said that they have researched their core audience and determined that this is something that they are, in fact, looking for. Right now, however, the search engine will remain the “central product,” though they’ll “build out around their core audience” as well.

I think that this strategy sounds much better than what we were hearing about earlier this week. By focusing on their core audience, Ask hopes to make their loyal users even more dedicated to increase their strength. Then they hope to grow from that position of strength, positioning themselves for growth in the search market. As long as we continue to see search innovation from Ask, I wish them luck!