It’s hard to label something that happened 17 years ago as ancient history, but in the world of technology, specifically the Internet, something that happened 17 years ago is beyond ancient. It’s practically prehistoric.
Remember something called Ask Jeeves?
Before this other company called Google came around, Ask Jeeves was one of a few serious players in the arena of search engines where Yahoo!, AltaVista and Lycos competed.
Today, the company no longer answers to Jeeves. Instead, it has simply rebranded itself as Ask.com, and is working to differentiate itself in the world of search.
“Like other companies of our mintage or vintage, we were challenged by what was happening in search,” says Doug Leeds, who became CEO of Ask.com, a 220-employee company, in 2009. “With Lycos, Excite, AltaVista, and all the others that were at the beginning, Ask had a different approach at that time. We were about questions and answers more so than about searching per se.”
Headquartered in Oakland, Calif., Ask.com is a global service used by more than 100 million users. When Google came in and tore up the market with what turned out to be a much better product in algorithmic search, it was sort of an existential moment for Ask.com.
“What do we do about that?” Leeds says. “Other companies couldn’t compete and folded, but we never saw our traffic leave us. People still came to us. The question we asked at Ask was, ‘Why? Why is it that people continue to love our products and our services when other contemporaries were pushed aside by Google?’”
The answer was and still is the fact that Ask.com relies on a different user proposition.
“We say, ‘We can answer questions for you,’” Leeds says.
People felt very comfortable asking a question on Ask.com or Ask Jeeves, much more than they ever did on Google.
“What I said in 2009 was, ‘Let’s double-click on that experience,’” Leeds says. “Let’s figure out how we can explore providing more value to users when they ask questions … because that’s what’s keeping us in business.”
With many of the Internet companies born in the mid-’90s no longer around, Ask.com has not only survived, but is thriving in today’s world.
Here’s how Leeds is growing Ask.com to the next level.
Find a better way forward
Since Google first launched in 1998, Ask.com has been able to rack up some significant accomplishments. And Leeds, who originally joined Ask.com in 2006, was behind many of those great ideas as a member of the product management team.
“That wasn’t too long ago, but the world still hadn’t been as Googly then as it is now,” Leeds says. “We were doing some amazing things in our product at that time. Our former CEO and I got together and we said, ‘We can build a better search engine and a better interface to search than Google can.’”
Leeds and his team were confident that one of the reasons Lycos, Excite and others failed was because they weren’t listening to what the marketplace wanted. Even Google, they felt, could be better and improved upon.
“We poured investments into this,” he says. “I’m not just talking about back-end technology, but how you display search results and what features you give to people to consume them.”
In fact, much of what you see on Google today, things people take for granted as being Google or Bing products — like related searches or having a homepage that gets you engaged — actually started on Ask.com.
“Those were things that we invented and that we did first,” Leeds says. “Today, every search engine does that stuff, but back then it was cutting edge stuff that no one else was doing.”
Ask.com got a lot of great press at that time and was being called the Google killer. But what happened was Google copied those features Ask.com was offering its users.
“Anything that we were doing would show up pretty quickly on Google and people would say, ‘I like Google because of its related search,’ and we’re like, ‘Ahh, that started here! We did that!’” Leeds says. “People also say, ‘I like Google because you can preview a page by clicking on a button.’ That was us.
“But nobody ever said, ‘I like Google because it gave me a good answer to my question.’ Even though we’re building incredibly good products here and it’s keeping us around, and people love us and are impressed by us, the timeframe for which we can win any customer based on those innovations was relatively small because they could be copied.
“The timeframe for which we could win on innovating in Q&A was much longer because Google was not being used that way.”
Create next level innovation
Since Q&A was Ask.com’s bread and butter, Leeds went to work on innovations that would make that a more valuable experience for Ask.com users.
“We built a user community,” Leeds says. “Right now, we have 180 million users worldwide every month, but they weren’t answering questions for each other. It was just ask a question to Ask and hope that Ask gives you back an answer sourced from somewhere on the web. We said, ‘There must be a way to harness 180 million people to answer questions for each other.’ So we built a community and it’s been pretty successful.”
What was a transformative moment for Ask.com was realizing it shouldn’t be spending energy and resources on search technology, because Google and Microsoft were spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year toward search.
“We’re trying to keep up and we’re not as good at that and people only really want that when we fail,” he says. “Only when we can’t answer their question do they want the Web search results. Let’s focus on how to answer their question and let’s outsource our fail state to some other company who makes that their core business.”
That’s exactly what Ask.com did in 2009, and it transformed the company.
“It transformed our focus,” he says. “It transformed our marketing and the story we wanted to tell about why people should use us. It re-energized our company. Our business results have really taken off in the years since then because of the focus on what our users were coming to us for.
“That isn’t to say they weren’t happy with our old service, I think because Google changed the world we had to change our product and changing our product was getting back to what we were originally good at.”
If Ask.com wasn’t going to focus on search technology, but rather on Q&A, the company had to figure out what it was going to do to give users a good answer if it wasn’t going to be a series of links on a page.
“What we realized, and what our challenge is today, is that we have to create both the technology and the content with which that technology can draw on to provide great answers to people right away,” Leeds says.
“Whether that comes from another page, but you extract the right information from it, or whether you are aggregating information from a bunch of great content, or whether you actually present that content itself on the page, that is the challenge. Don’t just give them Web results. Give them great content that they can consume.”
The biggest challenge Ask.com has is building technology that can deliver that content in a scalable way, and it relies on some of the same things that search does.
“We’re rebuilding some of the things that we originally cut, but we’re building them four years later and things have changed,” he says. “It’s about understanding the actual semantics of what people are asking using statistical analysis to look at pages and finding out that different sentences in different engrams or different terms are showing up in the same relationship on this page as they do in other places on the web, and using that to extract information. That’s the technological approach.”
The other approach Ask.com is taking is actually acquiring great content and bringing it onto a page. In September 2012, Ask.com bought About.com.
“About.com represents a collection of authoritative articles on topics as wide-ranging as the Internet,” Leeds says. “When we looked at that site we said, ‘This is really high-quality content that answers many of those questions that people are asking on Ask.com. If we own the content experience, and we could work closely with the people who are creating that content, then we can answer more of our own user’s questions. That About.com model is one that we are going to replicate.’”
Besides About.com, Ask.com also owns Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com. It also partners with sites such as Urbanspoon and Life123. The focus of the company in the future is to grow that portfolio.
“Whether that’s by buying companies that create the content themselves or by doing content partnering, all these things are the focus for the company — getting a great content experience on Ask.com, meaning an answer to your question both in brief and in full,” Leeds says.
“What About.com showed was doing that has benefits for both Ask users and About.com users and creates enough real synergies within the companies that the financial performance of both companies is significantly improved, especially About.com.”
Always be looking for what’s next
While the About.com acquisition will do wonders for both About.com users and Ask.com users, Leeds isn’t stopping there. The most exciting thing looking forward is the plan he has for the Ask.com product experience.
“We are going to significantly transform the way our product is brought to our users — what it looks like, how it works, the focus on Q&A and the experience on mobile devices,” Leeds says. “Across the board things are going to be changing in ways that users will really feel, which some will not like, but most hopefully will love, and really position ourselves as the place to go to get your questions answered on the web.”
One of the things Leeds says Ask.com has to improve is creating an environment where you go to an Ask.com page and if the logo were removed you would still know you’re on Ask.com.
“It should feel like a question and answer service without having to see the brand Ask.com,” he says. “There are a few sites that do that. At Ask.com, we’re still stuck a little bit in this evolution from search into Q&A, and what I’m most excited about is pushing forward into the Q&A experience so that you could cover up the logo on the page and you would say, ‘This is Ask.com because it’s all about Q&A.’”
The key to that innovation, Leeds says, is constant willingness to be uncomfortable.
“The thing about innovating is it’s really hard to do incrementally,” he says. “You can optimize or improve incrementally, but you can’t innovate incrementally, which means you have to do something completely different and feel uncomfortable.
“You have to do different exercises every day to make yourself feel OK with feeling uncomfortable to build muscle in innovation. That’s our big challenge every day. You have to transform uncomfortableness, a negative feeling, into silliness and acceptance, which is positive.”
How to reach: Ask.com, (510) 985-7400 or www.ask.com
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The Leeds File
Born: Los Angeles
Education: Received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and a doctorate from Georgetown University Law Center.
What was your first job and what did that experience teach you?
I worked at a stereo store called Affordable Portables. It only sold the Walkman. I started when I was 16 and worked there through high school and college. I learned about business, sales, listening to consumers and translating that into a product need.
Who do you admire in business?
Jeff Bezos. I’m such a fan of what Amazon.com does. They keep extending. It used to be just books, and then it became every product on the Web and off the Web. Then they bought Zappos.com and Audible.com, and introduced the Kindle. Bezos started the company and took it from nothing to where it is now, and all the challenges you have at each life stage of a company and having to manage through that is insanely impressive.
The other person is my grandfather. He was an inventor, and he invented the flexible straw, the bendy straw. He patented that and built the machines himself to start a company and for 17 years he ran the Flexible Straw Co. It was impressive to see that, and that it all started with tinkering.
What was the very first question asked on Ask.com was?
No one has ever asked me that, but that’s a really good question. I’ll have to find that out.
What is a question you have asked on Ask.com?
Every time I see a mock-up of a new product or feature we are going to roll out, people use the same question as the sample question — ‘How do I tie a bow tie?’