It's no secret that I'm a fan of Ask. I view them as the sort of "little engine that could" and cheer each step forward while lamenting each step back. I've even given myself a one-week challenge of using nothing but Ask for search, in the hopes that they might win me over. So far, Google still reigns as my number one search source, but having had a preview of the new Ask search that launched today, I'm ready to take on yet another "all-Ask challenge" to see if their latest updates will finally push them into the lead. (At least in my eyes.)

There's been quite a bit of buzz lately about Google's ever increasing integration of vertical search results into their standard search results in an attempt to help users get access to more information all at once. While the intention is admirable, I've personally been less than impressed with the results. After all, there are only ten top spots and I don't necessarily want them filled with video files and business listings. That's why yesterday afternoon when Gary Price gave me a walk through the new Ask search, I was pleased as punch to see their method of vertical search integration.

The new version of Ask, dubbed "Ask3D" not only LOOKS better, but it functions better as well. In fact, Ask's media kit explains that the term Ask3D stems from the fact that this new release "synthesizes the best of our technologies across the three dimensions of search: Expression, Results and Content. This is vertical search integration the way it should be.

The site starts off with a nice and clean design. Sure, it takes cues from the simplicity of Google's design, but it also manages to keep that friendly "my-grandma-could-use-this" feel that typifies Ask.

In fact, they even go the slightly cheesy route of letting you throw different skins on the search interface and somehow, it works. (It's like my brother who can act like a dork without looking like a dork...a skill I wish I possessed.) In fact, I quickly changed my skin over to bubbles since I can always use a little extra glee in my day.

The front page of Ask3D keeps the now common format of allowing you to search the standard organic index of data with quick click access to Ask's most popular vertical search options. Simply click on the flower icon for image search, or click on the conversation bubble for blog search. There's also a small arrow that gives you a pop up listing of Ask's other popular vertical search features.

With that, let's dive into actually using the new system so that you can see why I'm enjoying Ask's new integration of "Morph" technology. Wait, what's Morph technology? Well, here's how Ask explains it...

Morph, a new content-matching and ranking algorithm that literally transforms the entire page according to your unique query, presenting the right information, from the right sources, in the right place, at the right time. Morph, which deepdives hundreds of structured databases, takes into account not only relevance based on source signals, but also previous user behavior for your query. owns the patent on using click behavior to improve search relevance (via the DirectHit acquisition in 2000).

To get started, I ran a search for presidential candidate Mitt Romney. (Actually, I tried to use Fred Thompson, but his name is common enough that Ask doesn't quite snag the data that I'd want to see. Google and Yahoo! fail to get this query right as well, so it's a matter of refining search, not of Ask not getting things right.)

Here's the results page using the new Ask3D Morph technology:

You'll note that the left column still features Ask's popular search refinement options, allowing me one-click access to narrow my search, expand my search and even to look up related names.

The center column leads off with the Ask Smart Answer for Romney followed by a few paid search ads (kudos to McCain's team on that ad placement) and then the standard algorithmic search results.

Where the change comes in is over there in the right column. This is the Ask3D version of vertical search integration and I love it. Rather than shoving those vertical search results into the standard listing (which means pushing out some of the existing top ten listings), Ask3D offers them up in a third column with quick one-click access to more information. That means that I can not only scan the standard search results, but I can also get a glimpse of the top image, news images, video, encyclopedia and news story listings.

Ask3D gives users three different ways to make use of these vertical search results.

1.) They can click directly on one of those side listings to jump straight to that result

2.) They can mouse over the results for a better preview (larger size images or even a 5 second video preview) before deciding to click on the result

3.) They can click the name of the vertical search and get ported directly into that vertical search area with the data pre-filled to their original search query.

This is a great feature because you aren't entering an unknown collection of search results. There's no guessing "will there be image results?" before clicking that "search image" already know what the first few results will be and whether or not they look promising.

The other interesting thing is that those vertical search results and the top results in the middle column change depending on Ask3D's meta analysis of your search term.

For example, if I run my Mitt Romney search again, but expand it to "Mitt Romney Campaign," the top listing changes from the Smart Answer to the latest news articles.

To give you a better idea of exactly how Ask3D takes advantage of this Morph technology, let's take a look at a few more search terms.

First, I'll run a search for "uss Nimitz" which is the air craft carrier where my brother is stationed.

Note that in this example, there is no Smart Answer box (shame on Ask...get cracking on that one! Air craft carriers are big enough to deserve Smart Answers!) so the middle column goes straight to paid search and organic search results.

Over on the right, the Morph technology has decided images, the encyclopedia and blog posts are the best vertical search results to match with my query.

Next, let's run a search for popular country group "Rascal Flatts."

In this case, you'll see that Ask3D has a ton of vertical search results to offer up. This time around we get a Smart Answer, ads and organic search results in the middle column and then a slew of extra data on the right. It loads up image search first, followed by "Popular Tracks" that actually give you the option of playing a sound clip of the song without leaving the page. That's followed by Event Listings, the encyclopedia listing and then video search results.

Now imagine if they'd tried to shove the top result from each vertical into the organic search results and simply given you ten things to choose from. That would give you Google's new system. To note, the popular tracks listings tie in with music focused social networking site iLike and the event listings tie in with Ask City.

The Ask3D team is also working on some technology that would allow them REALLY deliver in terms of offering up what you've asked for. For example, if you run a search right now for "flower watercolors" Ask will actually serve up search results from their image vertical, but will push the watercolor images to the front of the listings.

Overall, it's a pretty impressive system. It does a great job of giving searcher quicker access to a variety of results without limiting their options in the standard search results. There are quite a few other nifty little features packed in to the new system as well.

1.) The little magnifying glass icon that has long allowed users to get a quick preview of the site they would end up on has been improved. The preview images are not only larger now, they also give you an estimated download time for the site and give you a warning if the site uses Flash or pop-up technology.

2.) If you search for a blog, Ask3D will throw up a list of popular feeds related to that blog in the right hand column. You'll also see a little plus sign pop up next to any search results that feature pages from a blog. Clicking on that plus sign will allow you to quickly save that blog to your "MyStuff" folder. Also, if you're looking at blog search results, you'll find that each blog listing has a drop down "subscribe" button that gives you one click access to add the blog's feed to a number of popular services including Bloglines, MyYahoo, Google Reader and Newsgator.

3.) Tons of right column vertical options that I didn't even touch on. The Ask3D media kit mentions quite a few other options including local time, local weather, maps, television listings, dictionary results, and music guides to name a few.

So I've told you what this will mean for searching (more information on one page than you get pretty much anywhere else) but I haven't told you what this will mean for search results.

Well, granted, most people don't worry so much about how they rank in Ask because Ask still sits well under 5% in terms of total search volume. However, let's say that maybe this is the start of a nice surge in popularity for Ask and coupled with people's frustration with top ten Google rankings packed with YouTube videos, Ask becomes a strong player.

This is the type of vertical search integration that you as a site owner want to see implemented. Why? Because it serves up the data users want in a format they'll appreciate. It gives more sites the opportunity to rank, but it keeps things clearly annotated to help searchers gain quick access to the type of information they're looking for. That makes everyone happy.

So with all of this to consider, I've decided to put myself on another "one-week-of-Ask" search plan. From noon today until noon next Tuesday, I'll limit myself to searching ONLY on Ask. They've clearly put some good work into this new release, so I figure it's only right to give it a fair shake as a search engine rather than writing about how much I like it before heading right back over to Google for my next search query.

I'll report back next week on my experiences, all while crossing my fingers that Ask doesn't follow their previous pattern of "wow me/sour me" that they have in the past.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

June 5, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Ask Does Integration Right