I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Lanzone, Senior Vice President & General Manager, Ask.com, via email. He's stoked about Ask's recent overhaul and offered a glimpse into their direction as well as the internal structure at Ask driving innovation.

Chris Sherman's excellent article details the changes made - my interview with Lanzone looks more at the minds and vision driving change at Ask.

SearchEngineLowdown: A current meme is searching beyond the engine, or search beyond the web. What is your vision for the future of search and what role will Ask play as search moves off the web?

Jim Lanzone: The "search box" will continue to expand to more than just Web pages. You're seeing that big time today, clearly, as it moves into local, video, music, maps, etc. Anything that can be searched will be searched, since it is such an easy way to navigate to things you need.

The thing that I don't believe will change is that the majority of people will rely on only 2 or 3 search hubs, max, for all of their searches, wherever search lives. It's too complicated otherwise, so established search brands will continue to matter.

It's also important to realize that search is still evolving at its core. That game is far from over. In 2002, people were happy to simply find relevant links. Now they want to get what they need (i.e., not just a link) faster, easier, better, etc.

We get a ton of usage from differentiated products on our site that do this like Smart Answers, Binoculars, and Zoom related search. With our new Maps product, we went a step beyond the standard "draggable maps" and did more to make them useful for people planning itineraries. Response has been terrific. The Toolbox we launched on our new homepage on Monday is another great example. We'll keep going and going with this stuff, focusing on usefulness and speed.

By the way, there's a lot of innovation that will still happen in basic relevance, both in Web search and in standard verticals.

Take our launch of image search in January. Certainly not a sexy topic, but those improvements drove image searches up almost 50% on our site. That's an incredible number. I think our core engine, what many people have referred to as Teoma over the years, represents another big opportunity for us. Relevance is not where we want it to be yet -- we have some breakthroughs ahead.

SEL: What is most exciting to you about the changes your various teams made? I mean personally, what do you feel like you all have helped accomplish here?

Jim Lanzone: We want to increase the frequency with which people use our site. Ask has nearly 20 million users in the US, but they only visit a couple of times per month. Ask was very well branded as the kind of search engine you should only use on occasion - the occasion you had a question. We still do more than other engines to answer questions, but over the past 3 or 4 years we've become so much more than that.

People should use us for all kinds of searches, all the time. But we have more humble short-term goals than that. If we simply double our monthly frequency, we will double our query volume. That's a good place to start. We want to earn that from our users, then go from there.

The launch on Monday was just one step on this path. First, obviously, we made a break from our "butler" legacy, and the site was rebranded along with that. This was a must for shifting perception of Ask to an everyday tool. This will be supported by marketing that's been developed in parallel.

We also launched our latest series of differentiated products, including the Toolbox and Maps products mentioned above, as well as others like web-based desktop search, encyclopedia search, a new kids site, and more. We know that when people are exposed to our unique tools, their frequency increases greatly.

The Toolbox integrates many of these tools into our homepage in a more aggressive way than other engines, but the UI is seamless and pure. I think of it like the click-wheel on the iPod, but for search. It has that kind of elegant usability (as Pandia.com said, it has "Zen like simplicity"...I like that). The Toolbox will be the foundation for a lot of things we'll be doing in the future.

We've gotten some great feedback on Maps from the blogging community. We feel like we added a lot of value there and had a lot of fun building it. Once we add local services it will be even better.

My personal favorite was the web-based desktop search. Being able to access my files from the Toolbox clickwheel has increased my usage of it greatly. I don't know why, it's just easier for me on the Web. Kind of like Bloglines. But to each his own, so we still offer the desktop app too.

SEL: How will you be getting word out about cool new toolbox API widgets that developers create?

Jim Lanzone: We haven't opened up the Toolbox yet, but it is on the roadmap for Phase 2, which isn't too far off. We'll try to make it easy for users to add their own tools. Beyond that, we have two or three years left on just the initial set of ideas for the Toolbox.

It's like the way I heard the creators of Lost describe the genesis of the show. They said they had an outline for the first 5 years after one weekend of writing. If you've ever watched that show, you might find that hard to believe. But apparently, yes, there is a grand plotline that is slowly evolving on that island.

So for you Lost fans out there, let me tell you: The Toolbox is like The Hatch. It's interesting on its own, but it's just a portal to another world. Stay tuned. :)

SEL: What was your role in the changes you guys made, specifically. Can you write some about what an average day looked like?

Jim Lanzone: We really operate as a team, and did so with this project more than any other. Beyond actual development work, the average day includes prioritization meetings, data analysis, usability testing, and lots of brainstorming and creativity.

At times we had engineers, product people, QA people, marketing people, researchers, and designers all in one room, from all levels of seniority, evaluating options together and making decisions as a team. It was invigorating. Everyone was so amped for this thing.

We also had teams like the Maps, Desktop and Encyclopedia teams who worked diligently on their projects, very focused, for several months. Towards the end we had company-wide testing (always good to get the finance people QA'ing your stuff!).

The best thing about Ask is that we're big enough that you feel what you're doing is important: it's a 24/7 resource for tens of millions of users around the world. But it's small enough that everybody knows each other and everybody can have a real impact. It's the best of both worlds at this point. Sometimes we get stretched too thinly, but we have the kind of people who thrive on that feeling, frankly.

My job on the team is to set objectives, define strategy, put the right people in the right roles and hold them accountable, facilitate when needed, prioritize and make decisions when needed, get my hands dirty when needed. I'm a momentum guy. I like to keep things moving.

SEL: Do you think there's anything about the changes that has gone unnoticed or underappreciated in the media?

Jim Lanzone: That's an interesting question. I thought the press and bloggers did a really good job with the story. They seemed to really understand that the changes put us even further into the game as a serious, everyday search site and a real innovator in the space.

They also clearly picked up on the fact that these changes are part of a pattern of innovation that has resulted in our growth.

Stepping back from the launch, over the past few years it was always frustrating to get praise from the people who know search best, like Danny Sullivan and Gary Price, but have the next level of the technology crowd seem completely unaware that we had changed. Some of the things I'd read on places like Slashdot, where people would bash us, drove me nuts. They hadn't even used our site. Hopefully this will change.

More recently, it was funny to see some bloggers say that we were harming Teoma by retiring the brand, ignoring or perhaps unaware that Teoma and Ask have been synonymous for years. Teoma didn't go away. It is part of Ask.com.

SEL: What changes/initiatives has Gary Price started since he arrived?

Jim Lanzone: Gary's first day was Monday. He spent this week at SES, networking and updating ResourceShelf, including an epic overview of the new Ask. He'll be on the lecture circuit next week, as usual.

He and I also led an initiative to Two Boots Pizza in NYC yesterday, where he quizzed me on the disco songs playing over the speakers, and I told him about the summer I played on Peter Cetera's softball team.

SEL: Who are some new hires who're having a big impact?

Jim Lanzone: If I mentioned their names, Microsoft would be calling them first thing in the morning and offering them free cupcakes for life to move to Seattle. So I'll take the Fifth on that one. I'll say I have been pleasantly surprised by the contributions of the Pisa, Italy team so far. Great guys, great talent. And being Italian, they like living in Italy just fine. The coffee is great.

SEL: Anyone else you'd like to single out?

Jim Lanzone: Nope. Just would like to point out that we have amazing product developers around the country and the world now, and they are a great team to work with every day. They know who they are and what they've done. I'm incredibly proud of them.

SEL: Obligatory Jeeves questions: How do you REALLY feel about the death of Jeeves?

Jim Lanzone: Hand-drawn cartoon characters do not die. They just get erased.

Honestly, we are probably going to offer skins of the site in the future. Maybe we'll let people design their own characters. But not that one. :)

SEL: Who was the genius behind the storm troopers + Jeeves in Carbonite?

Jim Lanzone: One of our product managers had the idea to do that for the Jeeves Retirement microsite, and then our marketing team came up with the idea to actually produce a real "Carbonite Jeeves" and display it at the party. They also hired the Stormtroopers and Boba Fett. (There was also an easter egg in the microsite where we had Jeeves jumping over shark tank on a motorcycle. I loved that too.)

SEL: Also, what about the obvious comparison you're drawing between Darth Vader/evil empire and Barry Diller?

Jim Lanzone: Now you're really reading into things. Did Zawodny put you up to that one?

SEL: Have you considered paying searchers to search in some way?

Jim Lanzone: There is definintely a segment of the market that is drawn to offers and loyalty programs. We own one of the pioneers with iWon, where we already give points to people for searching. We have not considered this for Ask as a standalone offering, but within the larger IAC network it may make sense at some point.

SEL: Your map service is my new favorite because I can CHANGE THE ROUTES. I've been shocked that no one offers what you guys built into the map functionality.

Jim Lanzone: Thanks! Yes, our new map service is awesome. (Almost as awesome as Mark Fletcher's www.awesomr.com.) We try to create things that go beyond cool technology and give you tools that help you accomplish tasks faster. But again, this is just the beginning for Ask Maps.

We have a long roadmap for building this out, and it will be the platform for many other kinds of search we'll be building.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

March 10, 2006

Garrett French is the co-founder of Ontolo, Inc., and co-creator of the Ontolo Link Building Toolset, which uses your target keywords to find and grade link prospects. The Link Building Toolset reduces link prospecting and qualification time, letting you focus on the most important part of link building: relationships.

Search Engine Guide > Garrett French > Jim Lanzone on the Death of the Butler and the Future of Search