Ask.com testing new search interface

Company aims to gain market share from giants like Google by investing in tech improvements.

Ask.com quietly began testing a new search interface this week in a bid to highlight its technology and take on titan Google anew.

Ask, a longtime background player in search that shed its "Jeeves" image this year, launched Askx.com--a simplified user interface for scouring Web sites, images, news and video. The company, owned by InterActiveCorp (IAC), described the site as a test bed for Ask's future technology.

"In today's version of Ask X, you're not just getting back a list of links, but a slick, new three-panel interface," according to the company. The left panel includes search suggestions, the middle panel displays Web listings and, at right, the page shows alternative results for video, shopping or encyclopedia links. Ask is inviting a small portion of Ask.com visitors to test the site, according to a company representative.

The test comes on the heels of Ask's unveiling of a new local search site, AskCity.com, which features maps and city business listings. The launch also highlights the fact that the contest to dominate Web search is far from over, despite Google's in the market--a more than 45 percent share compared with Ask's roughly 5.9 percent, according to researcher ComScore.

IAC doesn't plan to neglect Ask in light of its position in search behind Google, Yahoo and MSN. Rather, the company aims to gain market share from these giants by investing in tech improvements while Google bets on other markets like Wi-Fi, for example.

To be sure, Chief Executive Barry Diller told investors late Tuesday about the new site as a way to emphasize that the search company is central to tying all of IAC's properties together. IAC, which announced it would take a $200 million pretax charge this year, owns Evite, Citysearch and Ticketmaster, among other properties.

Also, Ask's advertising deal with Google ends in 2007, giving the company the opportunity to shop for a new partner to supply sponsored listings in search results. Search experts say Ask will likely be in a ripe position for courtship from Yahoo and MSN, along with Google.

Chris Sherman, executive editor for new industry Web site SearchEngineLand.com, said that Ask X is a departure from the company's bland interface and helps feature results that are different from rivals.

"Ask doesn't have big market share," said Sherman, "but they've got a fanatic user base like Apple's. It has a real good shot at having that cachet," he said.

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