Can you teach an old search engine new tricks? At a time when search has become almost synonymous with Google this is a tall order - but Ask.com is having a go.
This week, it re-invented itself with a digital striptease, shedding baggage such as intrusive advertising, cluttered desktops, links aimed at raising money rather than informing and even its former name, Ask Jeeves.
The aim? To go for Google. It believes that Google is very vulnerable. This is true partly because of its sheer size. But its squeaky clean image has also been tarnished by criticism from publishers because of its plan to scan whole libraries, from liberals angered by its acceptance of censorship in China and from punters worried that its search for money will tarnish its search for knowledge. Ask, which claims 6% of the UK search market, reckons Google's vulnerability could make a 10% market share a realisable goal.
The new Ask could claim to be the only "pure" search engine of any size. It is not a portal, it is dedicated to search without Google's "clip-ons" (such as email), has a clear home page and hasn't - yet - ventured into China. How clean can you get?
But does it work? The home page has a (customisable) toolbox on the right, enabling you to directly search images, news, weather, dictionaries and so forth. Search inquiries throw up several sponsored links in a shaded box above the actual search results. The links were interestingly different from Google, MSN and Yahoo.
Whether this was down to Ask's trendy claim to rank results based on popularity within communities as well as number of links is difficult to say - but it does illustrate a general truth about search engines: it is good to have a diversified portfolio. Most of the time, all of them do a pretty good job, but if you are searching for something special it pays to try a number of them: mouses for courses.
I use Google as my default search engine not because it is better but because it has so many nice add-ons. As a journalist, I find its news search (click on "news" above the search box), which scours newspapers around the world, vital for research.
Google also has its own newspaper, automatically generated and culled on the hoof from the day's newspapers. There is a user-friendly facility for customising your own paper so all recent stories on, say, the five topics of your choice come up every time you click. No wonder newspaper circulation is falling.
To keep up with what bloggers are saying I use Technorati.com. If you cut and paste the web address of any blog into it, it will link you to comments made by other bloggers. The new trend in search is to look not just at stories that are top of the popular pile but those recommended by like-minded people or experts. Sites such as del.icio.us and ultra-trendy digg.com (mainly technology) will never win design prizes but their content is edited by readers.
It may be strange to think of them as potential rivals to Google. But if there are millions of responses to a search inquiry, it is not self-evident that the most popular links will deliver more relevant content than that provided by like-minded people.
Search is still in its infancy and the "hidden web", the iceberg of buried data, is only now being mined seriously. Search engines such as Blinkx.com are searching videos in an intelligent way. Most engines will search your hard disk and emails, but using artificial intelligence to extract the quality from the dross is taking longer than expected 10 years ago, as Blinkx knows more than others.
It would be absurd to complain. Search engines have revolutionised access to knowledge in little more than a decade. The answer to anything is a mouse click away from anyone able to access a computer. The task for the next decade is to ensure the benefits of search are spread to poorer people around the world.
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