Since I spend the majority of my time looking at new search engines it's very easy to ignore what's happening with the existing ones, and particularly those engines that sometimes seem to have been around forever. For this column I thought that I'd try and correct that imbalance, and take a look in a little more detail at one of the 'big four' - Ask , and see what's been happening with it. Slightly confusingly there is more than one version; we have the UK-based version, which in many ways is closest to its Ask Jeeves origins, the US or global version , and the 'test bed' version Ask X .
I could have chosen any of them of course (the others being Google, Yahoo and Live), but I chose to concentrate on Ask for three specific reasons. Firstly I read a very interesting post from the Librarian in Black a while ago called 'Ten reasons librarians should use Ask.com instead of Google'  As with everything else Sarah writes it was a well thought-out piece, with lots of good points, though several of them were more appropriate for an American audience. However, it did help push me towards the direction of Ask. Secondly, Ask has been running a campaign in the UK called the Information Revolution  which I think is in many ways an extraordinarily poorly thought-out campaign, though I'll freely admit it did have the effect of getting me to think even more about the engine. Finally, I wanted an opportunity to properly explore Ask X, which is the Ask 'test bed' version, rolling out new features and functionality to see how they are taken up and used. It's also worth pointing out that I spent some time talking to Gary Price, who is both Director of Online Information Resources at Ask and also a friend - however, he's not given me any particular favouritism here, since he actively encourages librarians and library groups to talk directly to him with comments, ideas and opinions about the search engine, the direction it's taking and indeed any other search engines as well.
It's slightly confusing because I'm looking at the three different versions of the search engine, but since I'm based in the UK I'm focusing on the UK version.
There are a lot of reasons why librarians in particular, but everyone in general should give Ask a chance. If you remember it from the days when it was Ask Jeeves (and I am so glad that they got rid of that irritating butler, which I think did more damage to the engine than Google ever could have) you'll probably remember it as a little bit clunky and, well, not terribly good. If that's the case, I'd recommend taking another look at it now, since they have done a tremendous amount of work on it. As we'll see, the search engine isn't perfect by any means, but it's worth remembering where it was when it had the butler, the developments that have taken place in little more than a year, and extrapolating to see where it's likely to be by 2008/9.
The Ask interface is simple and straightforward, to the extent that yes, it does look like the one offered by Big G. However, there is something of a difference here, in that the menu of search options is on the right-hand side of the screen, neatly laid out for you to view. If that's still too much for you to cope with on the page you can contract the options to a neat collection of icons. What isn't clearly obvious is the fact that you can actually change the position of the menu options. You want News before Images? Simply click and drag it to the new position. Ask hasn't allowed itself to get hamstrung by its layout in the same way that Google is forced into staying with its traditional (and limiting) home page. There are two obvious radio buttons - Search the Web and Search UK pages only. The second option doesn't limit itself to just pages with a URL ending in .uk either - Ask is intelligent enough to actually work out the location of servers, and act accordingly, so it will include .com addresses in the results if appropriate. I'm slightly less impressed though by the advert to 'Join the Movement' with its 'click here' link though. I hope however this will disappear when the campaign finishes.
The results page is neatly laid out in the way that we would automatically expect. Page title, brief summary, URL, and cached copy (though this could be updated - the Ask cache of my page was dated 16 April 2007, a full 12 days ago, while the Google cache was 25 April 2007 - much more impressive). There is also a save option which allowed me to save individual pages without having to sign in, which I quite liked. However, Ask continues to suffer from having a large sponsored links section at the top of the page. Some searches worked reasonably well - a search for my name for example only brought up a single advert from Amazon but a search for 'digital photo frame' returned a ridiculous 5 adverts, pushing down the first result to the very bottom of my screen. This is quite simply stupid. By all means run adverts - I appreciate that the engine has to make money - but when it comes at the expense of my ability to start directly looking at results, this is not a good idea. This is where we see the other side of the problem of using the right-hand side of the screen for something useful (in this case the ability to narrow/expand a search as we'll shortly see), in that adverts have to go somewhere. It's not helped by the fact that there is another collection of adverts at the bottom of the screen. Interestingly, a search for 'digital photo frame' results in 9 adverts in Ask, but 11 in Google, yet the ones in Ask do appear more intrusive.
The situation is rather different when we move across to Ask X, which only delivers 5 adverts; 2 at the top of the organic results and 3 below. Obviously I would prefer no adverts at all (and you know, I'm beginning to come around to the unthinkable idea that I might well pay for an advert-free version of a search engine, but that's an entirely different article), but Ask X is actually getting there. This version of the search engine has a remarkably different look and feel to both the UK and US/Global version. The search box and narrow/expand options have now moved across to the left-hand side of the screen, with the results in a pane stretching across to the right. Once again there is an emphasis on putting quality data over on the right-hand side of the screen, which does force users to rethink their notion of what goes where on a search page. This will be refreshing for some people and a hindrance for others, but I think that Ask is taking the view that someone needs to break the traditional mould, and it may as well be them.
An interesting point with Ask X is that while I'm typing in my search term I get suggestions delivered real time. Other search engines do this (Google has the Google Suggest variant  for example), but with Ask X it's simply a part of the search and is helpful, though not intrusive. If I start typing p-h-i-l-B Ask immediately pops up with a link to my own weblog, allowing me to cursor down, click, and go straight to the page.
Some results also come with a binoculars icon next to them. Hovering the mouse over it allows me to get a snapshot of the page without actually having to visit it, and this is a nice approach since it lets me see a thumbnail without waiting for more than a second, and it doesn't take up a huge amount of the page in the way that some search engines do. On the other hand, the thumbnail is very small, and I'd have to question exactly how useful it is. Another irritating thing with the binoculars is that if you click on them, instead of seeing the thumbnail, you go directly to the site itself. This is counter intuitive - if I want to go to the site I'll click on the title. Both of these are however minor annoyances, and what concerns me here is something much more worrying. A thumbnail should sensibly show you the page as it exists now, or as it did when the page was last cached - that's logical. After all, what is the point or purpose of showing anything else? Unfortunately, this doesn't appear to be the way that Ask is thinking, because the thumbnail shot of my page is at least a year old. I checked the page that Ask has against the collection stored at the Wayback Machine , and the last time that I used the version of the page Ask returns to me was in April 2006. I can't date it any closer than that since the thumbnail is too small for closer identification. Now, I'm sure that someone at Ask can give me a very good and compelling reason why this is happening, but not surprisingly, I am unable to place much confidence in this function at all - or rather, while the function itself is admirable, the actual results are less than appealing. If Ask can address this failing, it would represent a significant improvement. Exalead offers the same function, but they are showing a more current version of the page, while ZapMeta does something similar.
However, to return to the layout of the page, that (major) niggle aside, the option to Narrow or Expand the search which is on the right-hand side of the screen is extremely valuable. A poor search for 'BBC' for example gave me the chance to refocus my search to subjects such as BBC weather, BBC radio, BBC sport and so on. I could also expand the search to ITV, television listings, Eastenders (though to be honest I'm not sure how I can expand a search from a television station to just one of their programmes, but I'll let that one lie) and so on. This option is generally really helpful, particularly if you're not entirely sure what you're looking for, or that you need a little bit of guidance. It's also great for students or novice searchers and a key reason for using Ask in my opinion.
Towards the bottom of the page Ask gives me the chance to view results for my search from Excite and/or Lycos. Finally at the bottom of the page the search box is repeated, with other search options above it.
Bouncing back to Ask X the layout differs again, making even more use of that right-hand side territory. My search for BBC gives me the search box on the left-hand side, the expand/narrow options (now joined with Related names) beneath. The right-hand side of the screen has the results, but in a third column over on the extreme right we are offered still more information again. We're presented with Images, Dictionary and News options. Depending on the content of the search you're running the options will change accordingly - a search for Lost (the science fiction television series) presented me with options to view Images, an All Music Guide, Movies, Dictionary and the latest RSS posts on the subject. Moreover, with each of these options I can click to expand the available information into that central pane, replacing the original results or I can click on a small magnifying glass to run an entirely different search.
Ask also tries to save time by clarifying exactly what the user wants. A search for 'dog' in most search engines provides users with Web pages that contain the word. However, in Ask X the searcher is offered a pull down menu of different breeds of dogs, and they can choose whichever is appropriate, and Ask then re-runs the search for the user. It's a clever option that really does help the users to consider exactly what they're searching for.
You may be thinking that this is all getting very complicated, but it's much more difficult to describe than actually use. I found it extremely easy to use, once I got used to the different methodology employed, and (whisper it quietly) it was a lot of fun to play around with an entirely different concept of information display. The search results page becomes much more of a reference resource than a simple set of results, drawing in content from a variety of different places without searchers having to go off and do it for themselves. This saves a tremendous amount of time, and as Gary Price pointed out to me, one of the jobs of the information professional is to save the time of others, so surely any tool that they use should also save their time too.
Ask provides searchers with a useful piece of functionality called 'Smart Answers'. Basically this is a small collection of facts, figures and links to a number of canned searches. It works well with searches for famous people, bands, countries, and some factual queries.
A search for 'Winston Churchill' gives a potted biography, a link through to more detailed information, the opportunity to search for images or products and an option to go to his official Web site. I particularly liked the result I obtained for my search query 'longest river in the world' which simply returned a list of the top five together with their lengths.
Plenty of other search engines are now also trying to give quick answers to queries, but the Ask approach is quick and works neatly. The addition of the narrow/expand and 'related names' option, with a link to 'news about' really does provide the searcher with a wealth of information on the page, and may in fact give the answer to a query there and then, without having to search further. It's also useful for financial information - a search for 'market cap msft' for example will tell you what the market capitalisation of Microsoft is (at least up to a 15 minute delay). Ask is also moving in the direction of adding in links to quality digital libraries as well - a search for Shakespeare will list a link to the Library of Shakespeare from the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
There may well be times when it's worth utilising the US version of the search engine, since Ask hasn't yet rolled out the same smart answers across the board. A search for 'birth rate UK' on the UK version didn't give me an immediate answer, but in the US version not only did I get an immediate response (10.78 per thousand in case you're interested), but there were also links to the World Factbook, the Wikipedia (which is actually masquerading as 'Encyclopaedia'), BBC profile, US Government Travel Information and Maps. Once again, Ask is acting as less of a search engine, and more of a reference tool.
It's interesting to enter either zip or post codes at this point as well. In the US version the search engine tells me which location the zip code refers to, and gives me options for Weather, Map, local time, population and business listings. In Ask X the display of information is rather more dramatic, with much of that information immediately displayed on the right-hand side. In the UK version a postal code will trigger an immediate answer (above the adverts!) for a small map box showing the area, a link to the full map, driving instructions and link to current weather conditions.
I was a little disappointed with the Ask image search function. True, it works well enough in that it returns images that match the search query, at least more or less. However, I do have to say that a search for one well known television reporter provided me with a list that included 2 photographs of entirely different people in the first 3 results.
Under each image I could get information (the size of the image, name and URL location), with the option of saving it.Clicking on the image took me directly to the URL, but left the Ask results in a frame at the top of the page, taking up a good third of the available screen. Yes, I had the option of removing the frame, but why should I have to waste my time doing something that should be blazingly obvious? If I want to look at the image, I want to look at the image, not have the Ask result continually paraded under my nose. The narrow/expand search option was appreciated, but it would also have been helpful to have options such as narrowing the search by size of image, colour, or black and white. Other search engines can manage this, why can't Ask?
Well, apparently it can, if you're using Ask X. A pull-down menu at the top of the images does allow for filtering based on size, file type (interestingly enough including .bmp files, which I've not seen before) and colour/B&W. I'm still not that impressed with the functionality here though, since once again I am taken to an intermediary framed page with the Ask X result at the top and the content page below. So there's certainly improvement across the range as it were, but I think it still has some way to go.
The news function worked perfectly well. The news home page provides links to Top Stories, World News, Entertainment and so on, and the news stories are culled from the Press Association, together with images as and when appropriate. I'd like to be able to show more enthusiasm for this element, but I must confess to a sense of disappointment by this relatively unimaginative implementation. Most noticeably, when I ran searches, I noted no opportunity to save the results as a RSS feed; although I know that a lot of people are yet to take up the option of fully utilising RSS feeds, I feel Ask really should be doing more in this area.
To be fair, it looks as though they are now addressing this issue. Once I jumped across to Ask X a search that was run using the News function did let me rearrange results by date or relevance, and Ask X does offer a number of RSS feeds. Consequently I think it's a case that Ask is aware that it needs to improve in different areas and is doing so. Is it fair to criticise it then? I would say that it is, because if a searcher goes to Ask UK they're getting an early (almost 'Ask Lite') version of the engine. If Ask is satisfied with providing us with that, then they have to accept that people won't find it very enjoyable to use; I'll stop criticising when Ask UK becomes Ask X UK!
The maps and directions function provides searches with the option of using search boxes for maps and directions. Confusingly there are two boxes for each option, although to be fair, Ask does clearly state what searchers can put into each box. Consequently if I want to search for a map the first box allows me to input street address, City, or Postcode, while the second box is for Town, County or Postcode. All well and good so far, but unfortunately putting any address in any format into the first box simply returns an error message to me. I tried inputting my street address, my city and my postcode (singly and in conjunction) to no avail.
Trying the second box, and inputting my postcode did work correctly, and a map was displayed for me. Initially the map was too small in order to provide me with any useful information, but after peering at the screen for a few moments I was able to find a zoom button. This did provide a much improved view of the map, though very basic, but which unfortunately did not offer a satellite image. This is however available in the global version, though you may need to go through the various location options to find London UK for example. It's actually worth taking the time to do this because the satellite images are excellent, and I can roughly date when the image was taken because I could see my old car in my driveway and view people sunbathing in Hyde Park. (Yes, it really is that good!)
I also tried the Directions option. It's simple enough to use, by just typing in the start and end addresses, and Ask will display a map, together with written instructions. Unfortunately the directions given were slightly odd; I requested directions from my father's home to mine and Ask suggested a route that was 19.5 miles long. Google's suggestion however was a more sensible 15.2 miles, although to be fair, the Ask route was quicker; 26 minutes instead of 33 minutes. Microsoft's Live engine gave me two options, either to display the shortest or the quickest route. Confusingly another search service, Live, suggested a shortest route of 28 minutes which was exactly the same route as Google's suggested 33 minutes, and the shortest distance was 13.1 miles and 32 minutes. Ask also provides walking directions.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of these inconsistencies. The only thing that is clear is that none of the search engines I reviewed were particularly good at the whole directions element; but if pressed to reply, I would probably use Live Search simply because the interface was more attractive and easier to use. Ask would come a very poor third.
However, once again it's worth taking a look at the US version to see a rather different story. Using yet another variant, City Ask  it's possible to input a business type and a location. A map then appears in the right-hand pane with various tagged locations that match the businesses linked in the central pane. It's easy to zoom in or out of the map, and below it is a series of icons that allows the user to add text labels, add addresses, draw free-hand and so on. One function that I particularly liked was the ability to draw a shape (such as a square, circle or polygon) on the map, and limit to searching for businesses, events or movies in that self defined area. Now, this is what I want. I really like the idea that Ask is treating space as an information resource in its own right, and it's an interesting counterpoint to the fact that they're doing it on the page results as well. Doubtless my plaintive refrain of 'Why can't we have this in the UK now?' must grate a little, I accept; but I'm a user, so I'm allowed to be permanently discontented with what I am offered.
Ask's weather offering worked perfectly, and allowed me to check the temperature in both Centigrade and Fahrenheit, gave me a brief two-line summary, and links to 7-day forecasts, seasonal and detailed weather reports. Within the US and Ask X version I was also offered weather alerts as provided by the US National Weather Service and these are given the prominence they deserve on the page. It's also worth mentioning that a search for 'climate location' returns a wealth of useful information in a smart answers type format with eleven different climate variables displayed in a table right at the top of the results column.
Ask has a dictionary option that can be called up either from the menu or using the dictionary: search syntax. Definitions are taken from WordNet,  and organic results are also used to provide different definitions to give a very broad range of answers. Incorrectly spelled words did sometimes trigger a spelling suggestions option, but anything that was too badly mangled did leave Ask doing a goldfish impression of helplessness.
Unfortunately I have to raise a slight concern about the search engine when looking at this option. I chose the 'Dictionary' option from the menu, entered my word and obtained a result based on the search 'dictionary: confederate'. The search box was clearly indicating that I was using the Dictionary, since it stated quite clearly 'Ask Dictionary'. However, what Ask then does is to take the user to the Web search page, inputs the search syntax and provides the result. My concern is that if searchers fail to notice this, the temptation is just to delete the entire line, type in a new word and expect the dictionary function to provide another definition. However, since searchers have in fact been placed in the Web search option, Ask actually returns results based on that - not on a dictionary search.
I'll freely admit that I managed to confuse myself as I was not actually looking at the screen; but why should I need to? Surely if I'm using the dictionary option, I must be receiving dictionary definitions; why should I need to check that I'm still using a dictionary option? (As a complete aside, someone at Ask should do a dictionary search on the word 'dictionary' since the result it returns is not the result you would expect!)
I'll also admit that it's a cheap shot, and one that Ask X has pushed right back at me. Within that version of the search engine I can search for a word (just by typing it in) and as well as doing a search for the word in the central pane, the dictionary definition pops up in the right-hand side. Not only that, but I can then click on the link to see this information in more detail, including synonyms and derivative terms. I can employ the small magnifying glass to obtain dictionary definitions of other terms as well, so the confusion that I've previously mentioned no longer occurs.
The shopping search takes users to Kelkoo, which provides photographs of products, prices and so on. To be fair, my interest in Shopping is best described as 'trace only'. So when I need to buy something I'll happily take another look, but until then, I willingly pass the responsibility of commenting on this aspect to reviewers more interested in this aspect.
The thesaurus function works in exactly the same way as the dictionary function, although the resource used is Roget's. Users type in their term into the Thesaurus page, and Ask takes them to Web search and provides the result using the thesaurus: function. I did a search for the word 'dictionary' in the dictionary function, and thought it might be amusing to see what the thesaurus function would make of the word 'thesaurus'. Interestingly enough Ask returned "Your search for 'thesaurus' did not match any thesaurus results." I fear at that point we had descended to the level of the schoolboy howler..
For once, Ask X didn't sort out this issue, and it still remained confused with my 'thesaurus thesaurus' search. However, for other thesauri searches it worked very well; I couldn't fault it.
Ask works in conjunction with Bloglines  to provide users with a superior searching experience. Within this search option Ask provides 3 different tabs - Posts, Feeds and News. There are some nice touches at this point - an ego search for me prompted Ask to display a 'Top feeds' option, which listed my own weblog(s) and my Flickr account. Switching tabs to Feeds gave me the same three results, but with a very handy pull-down menu allowing me to subscribe to the feed in six different resources, such as Bloglines.
The News option gives searchers more options as well - the ability to sort on relevance, most recent and popularity. Another option will show searchers results from anytime, the last hour, day, week or month. Finally, as well as providing the option to subscribe to a feed Ask gives users the opportunity to post results to resources such as Bloglines, Blogger or del.icio.us. This last point is actually worth drawing out a little - I was impressed by the fact that Ask provides users with the opportunity of using competing products; they don't pretend that Google, Yahoo and the rest don't exist and I think it's further evidence that Ask is there to help save us time.
This is clearly an area in which Ask has worked hard, and represents in my view one of the very best aspects of the search engine; whichever version of the engine that I looked at I was getting useful material, well laid out and displayed.
The video function within Ask X is a solid piece of functionality. Results display a single frame, title, publisher, date, file format and duration and are culled from Blinkx . Absolutely nothing wrong with it, and a useful addition, but there was nothing there I found particularly exciting.
As well as the key search elements as mentioned above, Ask has a number of other attractive search functions, such as a currency converter, movie search option, and video games search. All of these are nice additions, but that's all they are - not actually compelling reasons to actually use the search engine. They do however provide users with additional reasons to stay with the search engine - a subtle but important point. Having said that, I did like the 'Translate this Page' function and the 'Conversion' option; they were neat, functional and effective.
There are other functions that I'd like to see Ask offering, but even I accept that they can't do everything at once, and it would be churlish to list them here, given that Ask X is quickly pushing back the boundaries of what the engine is capable of. However, my one single plea would be 'Can we have Ask X as the UK default as soon as possible, and working with UK content please?'
As I mentioned earlier, Ask is currently running an advertising campaign on the Internet as well as several television adverts. The image that's been promoted is grey, gritty 'Revolutionistas' who are suggesting that people should 'Evolve your search!' The Web site includes various short video interviews with people from a variety of backgrounds, and the general thrust of their comments tends to be along the lines that using one search engine isn't a good idea. This makes sense, and while not exactly late-breaking news, does at least provide food for thought for people who think that using Google is the be all and end all of Internet search. The concept 'Search has evolved' is pushed at every opportunity. This will really confuse viewers because if they look at the UK version there's little going on there to demonstrate it. If they knew about, or were directed to Ask X it would be a different matter, and the slogan would make much more sense. I really do wonder at the timing of this campaign; they're really only going to get one opportunity to rebadge and rebuild themselves in most people's minds and doing this now with Ask X still waiting in the wings seems to be an odd thing to do.
The Web pages from the site are deliberately messy, dirty and employ a font reminiscent of Soviet-era dissident 'samizdat' typescript. On the site Ask is badged as 'The other search engine' though I suspect that Yahoo and Microsoft may have something to say about that! There is a definite call to arms about the site; one section says
The Internet needs YOU! Fight the mind control! Don't worry you don't all have to take to the streets (you can if you want to, but we won't pay your bail - and we're happy with sofa-bound revolutionaries as well!) - as long as you feel compelled to take action, no matter how small, in support of choice on information.
The site offers downloads of (dreadful red and black) revolutionary poster type wallpapers, and a link to free t-shirts which when I followed it informed me there were not any left just now. The whole site reeks of 'getting down and hip with today's younger generation of happening kids' as possibly defined by not so hip advertising executives. To be honest, nothing on this site would encourage me to use Ask, and given some of the feedback that I read in the weblogs, it's not actually having much of a positive effect on anyone else either. A much better approach in my opinion would have been a campaign that suggested that we use Ask X because it will save us time and give us more information in one bite of the cherry. However, I'm just a searcher, not an advertising executive, so what do I know?
Ask is an interesting search engine, particularly because it is in a state of transition at the moment. I hope the people at Ask are leaving the butler image behind them, but in all honesty this is going to be a difficult job for them - one of their major challenges at the moment is to get users to look at Ask afresh. As is clear from this column I'm not a particular fan of the UK version, and it's an engine that neither excites nor tempts me to use it to any great degree. Having said that, I would also have to say that it's in the first transition phrase from Ask Jeeves into something altogether more shiny. The US/global version is much more advanced, and it's frustrating for a UK audience that a lot of the (very good) functionality is just not available here for the time being. (Of course, this isn't a gripe that is just aimed at Ask - most search engines are guilty of an American bias in terms of development.)
At the other end of the spectrum we have Ask X. Not only is the layout different, but it's an entirely different resource, both in terms of what it gives searchers, the way in which it provides us with information and more importantly the whole underlying ethos. Yes, it's an algorithmic search engine that's powered by Teoma technology, but, and this is the interesting point, there's that extra level of human involvement that makes it interesting. Ask does appear to be attempting something different, which is to reinvent the search space, and the way in which we view information. To that extent I can see the reason why it is making a claim to being 'the other search engine'.
If you want a different search experience by all means try the UK offering, but I suspect that like me, you'll not be overly impressed. Remember however, this is early in the development approach. Instead, jump straight across to Ask X and spend some time exploring and enjoying a rather different and better search experience.