It's back to the future for the Ask.com search service. One of the early search providers, the company was originally called AskJeeves and focused on providing answers to so-called natural language queries. One could ask "What's the best way to get a mortgage approved?" and the service would give a full sentence answer on the results page along with the standard set of blue links to relevant sites for more information.
"We've been around 15 years and the root of our service is questions and answers," Tony Gentile, Ask's senior vice president of product management, told InternetNews.com.
The company continues to offer natural language-style answers on any Ask.com results page, but now it's experimenting with expanding that effort to include community results. The idea, which is the holy grail of search, is to give users the results they're after directly, rather than send them off to other sites on the results page in search of the answer they seek.
Gentile said the community results builds on the "Answers" capability the site has had for years. For example, if you ask "What is Diabetes?" you'll get an answer ("Diabetes is a life-long disease marked by high levels of sugar in the blood") at the top of the results page with a link to sources followed by more traditional related links.
"We've grown that capability from 25 percent to where we now deliver an answer 60 percent of the time," said Gentile. "We're proud of that performance, but now we want to do more to get at that other 40 percent of questions we're not answering."
To do that, Ask plans to leverage its community of users, which numbers 95 million across Ask.com and related properties. For now, several thousand Ask employees and its parent company IAC are participating in providing suggested answers in the beta release, but the company plans to expand that to the broader community of Ask users over time.
Community search is completely optional. Users can click on an "Ask the Community" button that appears on the right hand side of the search page if they want to go beyond the standard search results. You can also specify subject areas to narrow what segment of the search community you think is likely to have the answer.
Gentile admits Google dominant search presence is daunting, but his company has no illusions about taking on the search giant directly.
"We've had a lot of innovation, but it wasn't enough to matter to people who make Google their home," he said. "We're still a search site, but we see ourselves as complementary with a unique ability to provide answers right on the page without sending you off to another website."
The community rollout is part of a redesigned Ask.com front page that also highlights the most popular questions of the day.
"As the Web becomes more conversational in nature, consumer expectations and the Web's ability to meet those expectations are changing rapidly. It has become natural for people to ask questions and receive answers online, and algorithmic search alone can only take that proposition so far," Allen Weiner, vice president of research for the media industry at Gartner, said in a statement. "There is a huge market opportunity for companies who can get this right."