Ask, by any name, is still a search engine

New mobile app adds community Q&A, but the search results are where the value is.

Ask has a good search engine. But its community-powered Q&A feature leaves a bit to be desired. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

A new smartphone app for Ask coming out today reflects the service's renewed-again focus on Q&A. Users may have noticed a few weeks ago that the "search" button on the Ask Web site was swapped out for one that says, instead, "Ask." Nick McCann, Ask's VP of engineering, says the service "got a lift" on queries immediately after making that change.

But by any name, Ask is still a search engine. The new mobile app, which features a Q&A system with a social component, is still better for searches than it is for personal queries. Indeed, when you first use the app to ask a question, it will return answers from its search engine, which includes more than 500 million Q&A pairs from around the Web, according to McCann.

As a search app, it's fine, on a level with Google and Bing. It has the nice voice query function that these apps have, too.

As query engine, though, I find Ask unimpressive, both on the Web and on a mobile device. The quality of answers is not high. To improve answers, users can join networks of people and "follow" friends to see more answers from people they trust. Users can connect their accounts to Facebook or LinkedIn logins to join up with other Askers they know on those networks. But there's not nearly the same sense of conversation or journalism as you get on a the new hot Q&A site Quora.

One useful feature that McCann promised in future versions but not here yet: location awareness. A geo-locating Q&A app would be able to return targeted and useful results to McCann's sample query, "How long is the line at the Apple store right now?" Ultimately the app will know where questions are being asked and be able to push questions to people in the appropriate regions to get good answers. That may elevate the Q&A feature well above where it is now.

Ask is two things, one of which is quite good. Its question-based search engine is strong and worth using. But as a community-powered Q&A site, it has a lot of growing still to do.

 

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