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Interview with Michael Ferguson of Ask

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I recently had the opportunity to chat with one of my favorite usability people, Michael Ferguson at Ask.com. You can find excerpts of the interview, along with commentary, on Search Engine Land in this week’s Just Behave column. Some of Michael’s comments are particularly timely now, given Google’s announcement of Universal search.

Gord: How does Ask.com approach the search user experience and in big terms, what is your general philosophy?

Michael: A lot of what we do is, to some extent, informed by core search needs but also by our relevant market share, understanding that people have often experienced other engines before they come to us, not necessarily in that session but generally on the web. People have at least done a few searches on Google and Yahoo, so they have some context coming from those search experiences. So often, we’re taking what we’ve learned from best practices from competitors and others and then, on top of that, trying to add a lot of product experience and relevance experiences that are differentiated. Of course, we’re coming from this longer history of the company where we’ve had various user experiences over the time that we’ve been around. We’ve marketed around natural language, in the late 90’s and answered people’s questions at the top of the page, but in the last year and a half or so, we’ve rebranded and really focused on getting the word out to the end users that we are a keyword search engine, an everyday search engine.

A lot of the things that we’ve done with users have been to try to, implicitly, if not explicitly, inform users that are coming to the site you can use it very much like you can use any other kind of search engine you’ve been on before. Or, if they’re current users and people are coming back to the site, to let them know that the range of experiences and the type of information we bring back to them has greatly expanded. So that’s pretty much it. It’s informed by the context of not just a sense of pure search and information retrieval and all the research that’s gone on that in the last 35 or 40 years but also the dynamics of the experiences that we’ve had before and people’s previous experiences with Ask. Then, an acknowledgement that they’ve often searched on other sites and looked for information.

Gord: You brought up a number of topics that I’d like to touch on, each in sequence. You mentioned that in a lot of cases, they’re coming to Ask and they’ve used Google or Yahoo or they’ve used another engine as one of their primary search tools. Does Ask’s role as a supplemental engine or an alternative engine give you a little more latitude? You can add things from a functionality point of view to really differentiate yourselves. I actually just did a search and see that you, at least on my computer here, have made the move to incorporate some of the things that you were testing on AskX into the main site. Maybe we’ll start there. Is that an ongoing test? Am I just part of a beta test on that or this rollover complete now?

Michael: We’re still in testing with that and it will roll out. We have decided because of a lot of the user experience metrics that we’re getting from the beta test that we’re going to go for it. We have decided to move the full experience over to the AskX experience. Of course, there are variants to that, but the basic theme of, in a smart way, bringing together results from different search verticals and wrapping those around the core organic results (as well as) a sponsored experience. So that will happen sometime this year. We don’t know exactly when, but just a couple of days ago, we really decided we’ve seen enough and we’re pretty excited about that.

Google has a really great user experience going, and Yahoo does too, but they have so many different levers that move so much revenue and traffic and experience metrics that I think it’s harder for them to take chances and to move things around and get buy-offs at a bureaucratic level. To some extent, we see ourselves as having permission and a responsibility to really innovate on the user experience. It’s definitely a good time for us because we have such great support from IAC and they’re very much invested in us improving the user experience and getting more traffic and getting frequency and taking market share and they’re ready to very much invest in that. So we don’t need to cram the page with sponsored links and things like that. It’s mostly a transitional time when we’re getting people to reconsider the brand and the search engine as a full keyword based, everyday search engine that has lots to offer. I’m talking to people all the time about Ask and there’s definitely still people that say, “Hey, last night, it came up with my buddies at the bar, this trivia question about the Los Angeles Lakers, 1966 to 1972 (and I went to Ask and asked a question)”. Then there are other people that see us as evolving beyond that but still really surprised that we haven’t had image search.  Now with AskX we’ll have preview search and there’s lots of other stuff coming along now. So yes, it’s a great place to be. I love working with it. There are so many things that, in an informed way, we can take chances on, relative to our competitors.

Gord: So does this mean that the main site becomes more of an active site? Are you being more upfront with the testing on Ask.com rather than on AskX.com?

Michael: Well, I think the general sense of what we’re going to do is that, at some point this year, the AskX experience will, at least at a wireframe level, become the default experience and, of course, we have a lot of next generation “after that” stuff queued up that we’re thinking about and we’re actively testing right now but not in any live sense.  So potentially, things will slide in behind the move of the full interface going out and then AskX will remain a sandbox for another instance of, hopefully, new and really useful and differentiated search experience coming after that. A general thing that we’re going to try to do, instead of having 15 or 18 different product managers and engineering teams working on all these different facets of information retrieval and services, we’re going to stay search focused and just have one sandbox area where people go in and see multiple facets of what we’re thinking about.

Gord: Let’s talk about the sponsored ads for a bit. I notice that for a couple of searches that I’ve done while we’ve been talking that they’ve definitely been dialed down as far as the presence of sponsored on the page. I’m only seeing top sponsored appear, so you’re using the right rail to add additional search value or information value, whether it be suggested searches or on a local search, where it brought me back the current weather and time. So what’s the current strategy on Ask as far as presentation of sponsored results and the amount of real estate devoted to them?

Michael: Just to fit along with the logic of Eye Tracking II (Enquiro’s second eye tracking study), those ads are not a delineated part of the user experience for the end user and they’re relevance and their frequency can color the perception of the rest of the page and especially the organic listings below them. Right now, as I said, we’re very much focusing on improved user experience and building frequency and retention of customers, which all the companies are, I’m sure. But we’re really being, basically, cautious with the ads and getting them there when they’re appropriate and, as best we can, adjust them over time, so that when they’re there, they’re going to valuable for the user and for the vendor.

Gord: That’s a fairly significant evolution in thinking about what the results page looks like from say, two years ago, with Ask. Is that purely a function of IAC knowing that this is a long term game and it begins with market share and after that comes the monetization opportunities?

Michael: Actually, I think way before we got acquired by IAC we knew that. We test like other engines would. We test lots of different ad configurations and presentations and things like that but definitely you want to balance that. Way before we got acquired we realized that there’s one thing that’s kind of fun about making the quarter and blowing through it a little bit and then there’s another thing about eroding customers. And definitely there’s a lifetime value that can be gained by giving people what you know is a better user experience over time, so once we did become part of the IAC family, we brought them up to speed with the results that we were finding that were pointing to taking that road and they’ve very much been in support of it. And, of course, their revenue is spread amongst a lot of different pieces of online and offline business so their ability to absorb it is probably more flexible than ours was as a stand alone company.

Gord: That brings me to my next question, which is, with all the different properties that IAC has and their deep penetration into some of the vertical areas, you had talked about the opportunity to bring some of that value to the search results page. What are we looking at as far as that goes? Are we going to see more and more information pulled from other IAC into the main AskX interface?

Michael: Maybe the most powerful thing about the internet is that you as an individual now have a very empowered position relative to other producers of information, other businesses where you can consume a bunch of different points of view. You have a bunch of different opportunities to do business and get the lowest price and read reviews that the company itself hasn’t sanctioned, or anything like that.  You have access to your peer network and to your social networks. Search, like the internet, becomes, and it necessarily needs to be, a proxy for that neutral, unbiased view of all the information that’s available. This probably gets a little bit into what may or not may work with something like Google’s search history. Users over time have said again and again, “Don’t hide anything from me or don’t over think what you may think I might want. Give me all of the best stuff, use your algorithms to rank all that, but if I get the sense that anything’s biased or people are paying for this, then I’m not going to trust you and I’m going to go somewhere else where I can get that sense of empowerment again.”

As I’ve sat in user experience research over time, I’ve seen people..and I know this isn’t true of Google and I know it isn’t true of Ask right now with the  retraction from paid inclusion…but you ask users why they think this came up first on Google, maybe with a navigational query like Honda or Honda Civic and Honda comes up first. They’ll say, “Oh, Honda paid for that.” So even with the engines that aren’t doing paid inclusion, there’s still this kind of wariness that consumers have of just generally somebody on the internet, somewhere, behind the curtains, trying to take advantage of them or steer them in some way. So as soon as we got acquired by IAC, we have made it very much part of their perception of this and their culture. Their product management point of view is that you can’t sacrifice that neutrality. You can’t load a bunch of IAC stuff all over the place. The relationship with IAC does give us access to proprietary databases that we can do lots of deep dives in and get lots of rich information out  that can help the user in their instance of their search needs that other companies wouldn’t be able to get access to, while maintaining access to everything else.

The way we approached AskCity was a great example of this. We had leveraged a lot of CitySearch data but at the same time, we know that when people go out and want to see reviews, they want to see reviews from AOL Neighborhoods, they want to see reviews from Yelp they want to see reviews from all these other points of view too. So we go and scrape all those and fold them into the CitySearch stuff. We give access to all those results that come up on AskCity. If they’re, for instance, at a restaurant, you can get Open Table reviews and you can get movie reservations through Fandango and other stuff like that. Those companies have nothing to do with IAC. Those decisions were borne from user needs and from us looking as individuals in particular urban areas, and saying “Hey, what would I want to come up?” We know from previous experience from AOL that the walled garden thing doesn’t work. It’s just not what people expect from search and not what they expect from the internet, so that lesson’s been learned. I don’t know how much it would be different if we had some dominant market share over search, but that’s even more reason for us to be appealing to as wide a population as possible. That’s my philosophy right now.

Gord: I guess the other thing that every major engine is struggling with right now is in this quest to disambiguate intent, where is the trade-off with user control? Like you said, just show me a lot of the best stuff and I’ll decide where I want to drill down and I’ll change the query based on what I’m seeing to filter down to what I want. In talking to Marissa at Google and their moves towards personalization and introducing web history, I  think for anyone who understands how search engines work, it’s not that hard to see the benefits of personalization but from a user perspective there does seem to be some significant push back against that. Some users are saying, “I don’t want a lot of things happening in the background that are not transparent to me. I want to stay in control.” How is Ask approaching that?

Michael: The other major thing that’s going on right now is that we have fully revamped how we’re taking this. We developed the Direct Hit late 90’s technology. And then the Teoma technology we acquired. And really, it’s not that we’re taking those to the next level, we got all of that stuff together and over the past three years, we’ve been saying, “Okay, what do we have and what’s unique and differentiated?” There’s a lot of great user behavior data that Direct Hit understands.  We have a whole variety of things there and that’s unlocked, that’s across all the people coming in and out over time but not any personally identifiable type of stuff. And then there’s Teoma, which is good at seeing communities on the web, expertise within the communities and how communities relate. So right now, even though we have personalization stuff and My Stuff and other things that are coming up, we’re investing a lot more in the next version of the algorithm and the infrastructure for us to grow called Edison. And we started talking about that a week ago since A.G. (Apostolos Gerasoulis) mentioned it. Across a lot of user data it understands a lot about the context from the user intention side and because we’re constantly capturing the topology of the web and it’s communities and how they’re related, we then match the intention and the map of the web as it stands and the  blogosphere as it stands and other domains as they stand. Our Zoom product, which is now on the left under the search box in the AskX experience and it’s on the right on the live site, is the big area that we’re going to more passively offer people different paths.

For example, just like with AskX, you search for U2, it’s going to bring up news, and product results, and video results and images, and a Smart Answer at the top of the page. It’s also going to know that there’s U2 as the entity, the music band and therefore search the blogosphere but just search within music blogs. So what it’s doing, over time, is trying to give a personalized experience that’s informed by lots of behavior and trying to capture the structure of the web, basically. So that’s where we are there.

There’s a book that came out in early 1999 called Net Worth, which you might want to read. I almost want to revisit it myself now. It’s a Harvard Business School book that Marc Singer and John Hagel came out with. It talked about infomediaries and it imagined this future where there’d be these trusted brands and companies. They were thinking along the lines of American Express or some other concurrent banking entity at the time, but these infomediaries would have outside vendors come to them and they would entrust all their information, as much as they wanted to, they could control that, both online and offline.  You were talking in your latest blog post about understanding in the consideration phase where somebody is and presenting, potentially, websites that they hadn’t seen yet or ones that they might like at that point in the car purchase behavior. But the way that they were imagining it was that there would be a credit card that might show that someone had been taking trips from the San Francisco Bay area to the Tahoe region at a certain time of year and had maybe met with real estate agents up there and things like that. But these infomediaries, on top of not just web history but even offline stuff, would be a broker for all that information and there would be this nice marketplace where someone could come and say, “I want to pay $250 to talk to this person right now with this specific message”. So it seems that Google is doing a lot of that, especially with the DoubleClick acquisition. But I’m just wondering about the other side of it, keeping the end user aware of and empowered over that information and where it’s at. So Net Worth is a neat book to check out because the way they were describing it, the end user, even to the broker, would seep out exactly what they wanted to seep out at any given time. It wouldn’t be this passive recording device thing that’s silently taping. My experience so far of using the Google Toolbar that’s allowing the collection of history, is that it’s ambiguous to me about how much of my behavior is getting taken up by that system and used. We’ll see where it goes but right now we don’t have strong plans to do anything with that for search.

Gord: It’s going to be really interesting because, up to now, the tool bar was collecting data but there was no transparency into what it was collecting, and now that they’ve done that, we’ll see what the user response is to that. Now that they can go into their web history and have that initial shock of realizing how much Google actually does know about them.

One other question, and this is kind of a sidelight, but it’s always something that I’ve been interested in. Now that you have the search box along the left side there and it gives search suggestions as you’re typing, have you done any tracking to see how that’s altered your query logs? Have you noticed any trends in people searching differently now that you’re suggesting possible searches to them as they’re typing?

Michael: There are two broad things that are encouraging to us. One is that over time, the natural language queries are down tremendously. Our queries, because we promoted in the late nineties this “ask a question” thing, tended to be longer and more phrase based, more natural language based.  That’s really gone down and is approaching what we would consider normal for an every day search engine profile as far as the queries. And we really think that this zooming stuff has really helped that because it’s often keyword based. You will sometimes see some natural language stuff in there. There are communities on the web that are informing us that there’s an interest in this topic that’s related to the basic topic so it is helping change the user behavior on Ask.

And the other result of that is as people use it more for everyday keyword based search engine, the topics or the different categories of queries that people see are normalizing out too. Less and less they’re reference type stuff and more and more they’re transactional type queries, so that’s a good thing. And that’s just been happening as we rebranded and we presented Zoom.

And then with the AskX experience, we are definitely seeing that even more because of the fact that they’re just in proximity to the search box. We always knew that these suggestions should ideally be close to the search box so that people understand fully what we’re trying to offer them. For instance, on the current site, we do see users that will sometimes type a query in the search box on top and because they’re used to seeing ads on the right rail on so many other sites and because they don’t necessarily know what narrow and expand your search is they think those are just titles to other results or websites. It’s a relatively small portion. Most people get what it is, but there was that liability there. Now in the AskX experience, it’s close and visually grouped with the search box. It’s definitely getting used more and guiding queries and people seem even more comfortable putting general terms in. We’ve made it that you can just arrow down to the one and hit return. It’s definitely driving the queries differently.

Gord: I’ve always liked what you guys have done on the search page. I think it’s some of the most innovative stuff with a major search property that I see out there and I think that there’s definitely a good place for that kind of initiative. So let me wrap up by asking, if you had your way, in two years, what part would Ask be playing in the total search landscape?

Michael: We’d definitely have significantly more than 10% market share. My point of view, from dealing with the user experience, is that I’ve been proud of the work that we’ve done and I really think that we’ve been very focused and innovative with a very talented team here and we’re really hoping that as we look at the rest of the year and we put out Edison and the AskX experience, that we become recognized for taking chances and presenting the user experience in a differentiated way that people have to respond to us in the market and start adopting some of the things that we’re doing. Because of the amount of revenue that Microsoft, Yahoo and Google are dealing with on the search side, they often get a lot of press but our hope is really to take share and to hopefully have a user experience that inform and improve the user experience of our competitors.

Gord: Thank you for your time Michael.

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