Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Ask has 30 million American users and lots of plans

Ask's CEO offers the 'Real Deal' to Donna Bogatin.
The AskX website is a testing ground for what the next generation of Ask.com could be. AskX.com is the sandbox area and slowly but surely will be migrated over to everyday Ask.com users starting at some point in this quarter, but we have a lot of testing to do still. AskX is the potential future interface of Ask.com or potential future experience for Ask.com.

-Jim Lanzone, Ask CEO

One of the reasons I watch Bogatin's blog over on ZDNet so closely is that she uses terrier tactics. She'll bite at heels, snap and shake. Bogatin is no Google fangirl. She'll also cut to the core of the issue.

Barry Diller - Lanzone's boss - opines that Ask is the glue which holds his web site empire together. Lanzone's horizons are wider. To him Ask isn't constrained to just IAC but will make use of other sites. AskCity was built, he says, to cash in on local search. The best way to make a stab at that was to use the best resources they could find.

There's a diplomatic disagreement there. As Barry Diller was collecting his online empire there was criticism that it was too diverse, that it was just a collection of good looking, currently successful but otherwise random sites with no long term plan. Diller used Ask.com to counter those criticisms. Put the concept of "finding stuff online" in the center and then its easy to have "stuff online" and connect the two. If you drew this out you'd have Ask.com in the middle and spokes off to every other IAC site.

Lanzone doesn't (need to) think like that. He wants Ask to be successful and recognised for that success. I doubt he wants to be seen as the site which drives traffic to other IAC sites. He wants Ask to be a successful search engine.

Lanzone isn't Page, though, and Ask isn't Google. Whereas Brin and Page wrote a stern "We'll do it our way and not succumb to short term ROI" letter to investors for the IPO, Lanzone says;
We have to do what is in our short and long term best interests, we have to focus on ROI.

The indications are that Ask will be sticking with Google for paid search results for a little while. Lanzone has said Ask will use what's best for them and not necessarily strictly IAC and he says it's about the ROI. When asked about the paid listing supply, Lanzone also said;
Google has historically paid the most… they can give a better deal to potential partners.

Does Yahoo have the cash to outbid Google? Unlikely. Although Yahoo surprised many by paying a rumoured $10m for MyBlogLog. It may only be Live Search (MSN) with deep enough pockets. MSN typically has very short arms though. They could have had AOL but lost it to Google.

Google benefits from its relationship with Ask too. Google could never be seen to be encouraging people to click on paid ads - they're lambasted whenever they're less pure than virgin pure. However, there are charity search engines which donate a share of their click profits and these engines are often powered by Ask. That is to say, these charity search engines get their paid ads from Google and encourage people to click on them in order to aid charity. A good will click fraud, some might say.

What ever happens it will pay to keep an eye on Ask.com. They are firmly 4th while Yahoo and Live Search battle not to be 3rd. According to Lanzone Ask has 10% of all searches if you add in their distribution network. If either Yahoo or Live Search slip then Ask is likely to be ready to pounce.

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