The search for better search is just beginning. In his keynote address here kicking off the Search Engine Strategies conference, Ask.com CEO Jim Lanzone said the Web is entering a new generation of search.
In the early days of the Web's growth Lanzone said it wasn't clear search would thrive as an application. With the advent of bookmarks, he said there was some thought that consumers would find the 30 or so sites important to them and that's all they'd ever need.
The next generation was marked by "find the needle in the haystack" technology that's still largely with us. "But there are things we can do [with search results] beyond 10 blue links and leaving people for dead," said Lanzone.
The challenge for companies like Ask, Google, Yahoo and others is to provide the answers people want on whatever system they happen to be using, including computers, mobile devices and television. Lanzone said the process also has to remain simple.
"People don't want to set anything up," he said. "I've learned it's hard to get people to customize. It's hard to get them to even read directions. The number of people that will personalize [settings] is not a mass-market number. The bigger challenge is what you can do for billions of people."
Lanzone said Ask will stay focused on simplicity from the user perspective and offer better results by leveraging the collective activities of its 50 million users. "I think the sweet spot of enhancing the results is to focus on the collective as we've done with our Edison algorithm."
Ask began using "The Algorithm" as a catch phrase in a stepped-up marketing campaign this spring. Lanzone said Ask has "great patents" related to harnessing collective results. It's a different kind of personalization than say what Amazon.com provides with its recommendations. "Just because I bought surf music once, doesn't mean I want it to be recommended all the time," he said.
During the onstage Q&A, conference co-chair Chris Sherman asked about Ask's privacy efforts, which have generated a fair bit of publicity recently. Oddly, Lanzone didn't seem to want to take too much credit for the company's innovative AskEraser which lets users change their privacy preference at any time.
"It's been slow news this summer that we got such publicity," he said. "Privacy is important and people want to know you aren't doing anything to harm them." He said that for people who are ultra-concerned with their privacy or what they do on the Web, AskEraser takes the issue off the table. "Within a couple of hours all the data will be gone and no one will be able to subpoena it. If that's what is important to you, it's a clean slate."
Ask is owned by media conglomerate IAC/Interactive Corp. (Quote) and seems unafraid to go directly after search giant Google which has, by far, the lion's share of the market. Ironically, the two companies not only compete but partner on advertising. Lanzone said Ask is Google's biggest partner. The current agreement is up for renewal this year and Lanzone said "if" Ask renews it will be a multi-billion-dollar deal. There has been some speculation Ask could ditch Google for Microsoft.
Lanzone criticized press coverage for harping on whether Ask could topple Google.
"When we look at search, we're truly competing for users and it's not a zero sum game," he said. "It creates coopetition on the advertising side."
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