Ask Jeeves

Ask Jeeves

Type of engine:Major search engine.
Relevancy of results:Good for web search.
Features and functionality: Ask offers a lot of features these days, and I think they are good ones.
Quality of help and “about us” pages: Very good. The help pages cover many topics and are easy to understand.
Business model: Sponsored results from Google’s AdSense on and through distribution to other sites owned by Jeeves, such as iWon and Excite. Here’s a full list of Ask’s properties.

Just like the major TV networks, there are now four major search engines: Google, MSN, Yahoo, and Ask Jeeves*. Ask Jeeves? That’s right. With the acquisition and integration of Teoma’s technology, Ask Jeeves has snuck into the top tier. I used to think of them only as a natural language engine that provided mediocre relevance, but things have changed. When was the last time you used Ask? If you’re like me, it’s probably been a while. These days, Ask offers a variety of search features including their own web index search, local search, desktop search, and more.

*This is not intended to slight any of the other high-quality search engines out there. I’m just referring in this case to deep pockets and large audiences.

Check out their Smart Search page to see all the different things the company is up to, including local search, a toolbar, and a host of other things. None of their extra features are amazing and completely different from what other engines are doing, but they’ve done a nice job bundling it all together and the help pages do a nice job of explaining it all.

Advanced Search offers some nice features such as limiting searches to title or URL. In the information retrieval world, limiting searches to fields is core. But it has not taken off so much for web search engines. Yahoo also offers field filters, but Google and MSN do not.

The user preferences page offers a couple features you may want to adjust before searching on Ask. You can set your default location for local search, set the number of results per page up to 100, and you can also uncheck the option for keeping frames on when you click on a search result and leave I hate it when search engines trap me in their frames after I’ve clicked on a site, but maybe other people feel differently since frames are set as the default.
Some other things to point out is that search results have cached, or archived, versions. This is very nice for pages that have gone dead or are temporarily down, but you still want access to their content.

Right now they’re pushing My Jeeves, the personalized version of their services. (Note: they very clearly state that it is still in beta.) Unlike the previous generation of personalization services like stocks, email, news, and so forth, offered by the portals, and still in effect at places like MSN, Yahoo, and AOL, My Ask is focused on personalizing search. My Ask offers the ability to save and organize searches. Users can even add notes to their saved searches. This is similar to what other sites like Furl, Net Snippets and other companies are doing. But with the added advantage of being a search engine, Ask can offer a more fully integrated search and save option.

To see what queries are popular, Ask provides Jeeves IQ. Unfortunately it only shows a few topics, such as news searches and biggest gainers, and they only show the top 5 or 10 queries per topic. I wish they would expand this. I could be wrong, but I seem to recall that a few years ago they published much more about their query stream.

Jeeves also has kids search that has a focus on school subjects like history, science, and math help.

Query Examples
I searched for peanut peanut butter cookie recipe. One of the first things I noticed were the related topics that appear on the right hand side of the page. There were suggested topics such as peanut butter cookies, make peanut butter cookies, free peanut butter cookie recipe, and so forth. None of these refined my query enough to make me rethink my search strategy, but each of them did provide a slightly different tactic with different results. Every time you click on a related topic, new related topics are generated. This is nice because it doesn’t keep you in an infinite loop and you can travel through gradual steps to different topics. My big suggestion here is for Ask to think of a way to mark the path I have traveled. As I kept clicking through related topics and reviewing search results I lost track of what I had clicked on. Maybe there could be a running list that is kept off to the side of the page that shows what I have already looked at, or some other visual mapping clue to help me remember my way.

By changing my search ever so slightly and making cookie into cookies, peanut butter cookies recipe I got totally different related topics and almost entirely different web results. On the first page of results, only one site was returned for both queries. Something seems a bit fishy about their truncations because those two searches should provide nearly identical results; or if not nearly identical, then at least there should be a significant overlap in the result sets.

But OK, so the results are different, but let’s take a look at the relevancy. This is a pretty easy search topic and all the results are relevant in that they have peanut butter cookie recipes on them. Time to try something a bit harder: peanut butter cookie recipes for diabetics. The first thing that stands out, and is not good, is that Ask went from 3 sponsored results to 11. Eleven! I had to scroll below the fold, and then some, just to get to my first web result. That’s bad. So bad that if I were a regular user searching on Ask for diabetic recipes I would leave. But since I’m here, it’s worth checking out the sponsored results. None of them, not a one, are relevant. Two are recipe sites that have regular, non-diabetic cookie recipes and the rest are diabetes sites that do not have peanut butter cookie recipes. None of them have a peanut butter cookie recipe for diabetics. This is an obvious case of the sponsored results matching to one word – in this case diabetes – and providing nine false positive matches. Flipping over to Google I see the same sites with the same display text being shown in their sponsored links section. It seems the relevancy is Google’s problem and the number of results being shown is Ask’s problem.

The relevancy of the web results was pretty good with one exception: there were two sites that were selling a diabetes dietary supplement, but had links to other sites with peanut butter cookie recipes. This is a tough thing for engines to catch because the site provides enough content and link text to match the query, but the goal of these sites is to sell their products. There was also one site with a diabetes recipe for frozen peanut butter mocha parfaits that had as an ingredient vanilla wafer cookie crumbs. So I can understand why it was returned, but it really is not relevant. Also, it is worth noting that the only related topic that came up is sugar free peanut butter cookies. Why did we go from 10 related topics to 1? There should be many related topics for my search, such as other diabetic cookie recipes.

Seeing as how Ask has been known as being a natural language engine, I searched for how many calories do diabetic peanut butter cookies have? The first result, above even the sponsored listings, is a red rectangle with another search box in it that says: Find the nutritional content of… But I also searched for just the word calories and I got the same box. It is not natural language, but it is a hard-coded result based on word matching. I also tried what is the population of Scotland? but there were no natural language type of results returned.

Ask also offers tabs for pictures, news, local, and products, but those reviews will have to wait for another time.

I also want to point out that Ask returns content for some queries. Like for San Francisco weather the current temperature and 7 day forecast are displayed as if they were the first result. Their help section has more info about what they are calling smart search. Other examples are people searches and the now ubiquitous stock searches.

Somewhere along the line Ask Jeeves went from a natural language engine to an all around engine. Obviously Teoma was the major factor in their evolution, but I was surprised to see how little placement natural language searches are getting now on their site. Their relevance and features are respectable and deserve more attention from the search industry. I also think they have the nice advantage of being less under the microscope than Google, Yahoo, or MSN, and as such they take more risks without incurring the wraith of the media and the search industry.

About Chris

I'm Chris and I've worked in the search engine industry since the late '90s.

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2 Comments on “Ask Jeeves”

  1. Yeah, other people have told me to keep the drinks in, but I thought I should be less silly, and the drink was always the hardest part of the review!


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