Earlier this week, I made a blog post talking about some good conversation that I had with a few of the team members from Ask.com during last week's Search Engine Strategies. As a result of the conversation, I vowed to forsake Google in favor of Ask.com for an entire week. The idea was to see if I'd really notice a difference between the two engines, or if I was simply using Google out of habit.

The week has come to an end and so has my experiment. I'm disheartened to say that I'm glad it's over. While Ask.com has made some impressive strides in the past few years and while I see them showing great potential moving forward, the reality is that they just didn't meet my needs the way that Google does. With that in mind, let's break it down a bit further to see what Ask is doing right and what they seem to be doing wrong.

Specialized Search Results

The week started off strong for Ask. I didn't do a lot of searching on Monday, but late in the afternoon I realized that I was going to have to come up with some plan for the two salmon steaks I had sitting in the fridge. I'd picked them up for my husband, and not being a fan of fish myself, I had no idea how to prepare them. Since I'd usually run a search on Google for a phrase like "salmon recipes" I decided to do the same on Ask.

As it turns out, Ask has a nifty little feature that pops up a half dozen or so recipes from AllRecipes right there in the search results. They give you the name of the recipe, the review score, the number of reviews and a quick link to read either the recipe or the reviews. In a matter of moments, I had a plan for my salmon and I was feeling pretty confident in my decision to switch engines.

I was also happy to see that Ask had relegated their specialized results (it's called the "OneBox" on Google, but I'm not really sure what it's called on Ask...) to a spot above the sponsored results. (Google places the OneBox results below their ads.) It doesn't really make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things, but it did sort of give me some nice warm fuzzy feelings that Ask might be more concerned with helping me find what I'm looking for than in making more money from PPC ads.

Vanity Searches Sink and Fly

One of the critiques that Ask.com gets from people within the industry is that it doesn't seem to give the same ego boost that Google does when techies conduct vanity searches. I'm not sure how that's relevant in the real world as it's not like any of us search types (other than Ask's own Gary Price, but come on, they're just a bit biased!) are getting searches at a high enough rate to warrant our own Smart Answer.

Out of curiosity, I had to run a search for my own name and overall, the results were fine. Maybe not as nice as Google's, but certainly nothing to scoff at. That said, when I tried to look up the URL of an article I'd written a few months back, I was sad to see that I had to go to page three of the search results even when I typed the title in as my search term. (On Google, my article showed up in second place for the same phrase.) In fact, the listings that showed up ahead of mine really didn't even look like they belonged there.

With that in mind, and since I'd just returned from SES and needed to do a little online reputation management, I turned to Ask's blog search service to find out who might have made mention of me from the show. I was quite pleased with Ask's results here, finding that they often had posts listed even before I could find them on Technorati. Through Ask's blog search tool I was able to find quite a few posts mentioning some of my talks and had a great chance to see what some of the feedback was.

At this point in the week, Ask was still doing pretty good...but then Wednesday came...

Dear Ask...I am NOT British

As anyone that ran into my last week in San Jose knows, I'm currently quite pregnant and expecting a baby in early October. Thus, Wednesday saw me making a trek to visit my midwife for a checkup. After taking to her, I decided that I did want to try to arrange for a tub or pool to labor in and planned to turn to the Internet to research my options. This is where things started to go south.

I started my search on Ask for "birthing pools." Unfortunately, more than half of the sites listed in the top ten were British. Since I was searching on Ask.com and not uk.Ask.com, I expected that the sites that were returned would be...well...from the states. Since I couldn't figure out how to exclude these British sites, this left me with about 50% usage of the search results and forced me to continue to tailor my search to try and get better results.

I spent nearly two hours searching Ask that afternoon. I tried home birth tubs, home birth pools, birthing tubs, inflatable birthing tubs, inflatable kiddie pools...pretty much any combination of words that I thought might be relative. I even tried clicking on the suggestions in the "narrow your search" column. The results were awful and rarely had anything useful for me. I finally, via a discussion forum that I already frequented figured out that I'd want to buy an inflatable pool with super thick side walls, so I went back to Ask on Thursday to try and locate that.

After a few more hours of fruitless searching, I was ready to toss Ask out the window. I found ONE site that had what I wanted, but it was out of stock...not Ask's fault, but I had to believe that there were more sites out there selling the type of product that I wanted and I couldn't help but wonder if Ask's limited index size was playing a part in my frustrations. The entire time I was searching, I couldn't help but wonder if Google might quickly help me find what I was looking for.

It Has It's Good Points and It Has It's Bad Points

The reality was that this past week wasn't really a high search volume week for me. There wasn't much in the way of the random searching that often leads me to Google. I didn't see a commercial that sparked an interest, or think of a song that I wanted to find the lyrics to. Overall, I probably only searched for two or three topics a day. That may mean that Ask didn't really get a fair chance, but the point of the experiment wasn't so much to give a fair chance as to see how I'd feel about them at the end of a week.

My overall viewpoint is that while I respect what they are trying to do and even applaud some of their efforts, I walked away from the week feeling very relieved to have the Google toolbar back in play on my system.

Features like the "Narrow Your Search" suggestions were very handy. I liked having the reminders and the ability to quickly click on a link rather than having to type a new search query. I was also impressed with some of the specialized results that appeared above the advertising. Things like quick access to recipes or Smart Answer results and links when I searched for a specific TV show were pretty handy. I also came to the conclusion that Ask's blog search is FAR better than Google's blog search.

But the reality was, that most of what I liked about Ask was the "fluff." It was the special features and they way they were presented, it wasn't the quality of their organic index...and when you really boil it down, that's the space that matters.

What this tells me is that Ask is pretty far ahead of the curve in terms of supplemental features and search-assisting functionality, but it's still got a long way to go in the algorithm department. That may not be a bad thing though. Certain types of users are going to be drawn to Ask's features and are unlikely to notice a real difference in the organic listings, at least until they start to search for something uncommon.

For hard core searchers though, Ask really isn't going to cut it. Google's size, speed and accuracy far outweigh Ask and for a searcher that already understands how to format specialized searches, it's that algorithmic power that's the draw.

That doesn't mean I'm counting Ask out though... They likely will become my regular stop now for blog searches and I'd still like to give their local search and their mapping services a fair try. What it does mean is that Google is going to remain my default search engine.

...at least until a week or two from now when I decide to try this same experiment on Yahoo!

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

August 18, 2006

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 > Why Do You Ask? Why Does Anyone Ask? It Depends on Your Needs