Monday, January 21, 2013
Ask.com – Do they have the answer for a strong comeback?
Story first appeared on USA Today.com
Doug Leeds wants the folks who work for him to get "really silly."
The CEO of dot-com pioneer Ask.com, he's quietly helped bring the company back from the brink by focusing on its original intention — answering questions — and allowing his employees to throw out crazy ideas during weekly improv sessions.
"One of the things that inhibited innovation was that folks wanted everything to be perfect first," he says. "We just want to get people to talk, to get every idea out, to get really silly."
One nutty idea was paying $300 million for a company that was dragging down the New York Times Co.'s earnings — About.com. About was purchased by Ask parent IAC, and is a separate unit.
Leeds believed About — which offers a place for in-depth information on everything from parenting and baby tips to how to change oil on a car — could be integrated with Ask's questions-and-answer format.
"Ask is a place to ask questions," Leeds says. "Think of it like a library. About is a great set of books the librarian shows you for more information. It's the best source of reference material on the Web, and it wasn't being utilized fully by the New York Times."
That it dragged down the Times company doesn't matter. About on Ask is the "right place for the right user mindset," he says.
Ask began in 1996 as Ask Jeeves, a different form of search engine that responded to questions. The company dropped the Jeeves part of the name in 2005. The question and answers also got ditched, but returned in 2010.
Ask is now consistently a top 10 website, according to ComScore Media Metrix. It averaged 104 million visitors in December, and was the eighth most visited site. It began 2012 with 95.7 million visitors.
Financials are growing, too. It is a part of IAC's search division, which reported revenue of $370 million in the third quarter. That's up from $258.9 million in the year-ago quarter. The search unit also includes Dictionary.com. IAC also owns Match.com, Vimeo and The Daily Beast.
Ask's share of search is a small 3%, according to ComScore, compared with 66% for market leader Google.
However, even at 3%, the search market is so large "that even a sliver is a significant business," says Greg Sterling, a senior analyst with Opus Research. "Search is still 50% of all online advertising."
Ask has thrived by sticking around. "They have a loyal core following," Sterling says. "Ask also benefits from being used as a secondary search engine."
Interviewed at Ask's towering Oakland headquarters, which dominates the skyline here, Leeds says Ask's original mission was derailed by Google, which became really popular, really fast. Ask decided to shift gears to search, too. But after some lean years, it found that consumers still preferred the question-and-answer format from Ask.
"So we went back to the basics, and it's been very successful," Leeds says.
Questions are answered by tapping into sites such as Wikipedia and Dictionary.com, internally via its own staff, and asking users to chime in and answer as well. "We're using every method the Internet has."
It's also looking to showcase more content from About.com. A question about this year's crop of American Idol judges, for instance, pops up articles about next week's premiere from People and the New York Daily News, an About.com backgrounder on all the judges from the last 11 seasons of the show, and links to other Idol related questions.
For 2013, Leeds wants to see more use of About on Ask, as well as another new acquisition, nRelate, a company that offers suggested links to queries.
"Our users want to go deeper," Leeds says. "Right now, they ask a question, we answer it, and we move on to the next question. We want to have them explore their interests further. It's about content discovery."