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Ask Jeeves grapples with question of sex

The search query Web site built around the mascot of an avuncular, tuxedoed butler may be on the verge of loosening its straight-laced image with a deeper foray into the world of online sex.

The search query Web site built around the mascot of an avuncular, tuxedoed butler named Jeeves may be on the verge of loosening its straight-laced image with a deeper foray into the world of online sex.

Ask Jeeves has confirmed that it is evaluating a variety of options to address the large quantity of sex- and pornography-related queries submitted to its service. The company is considering plans for separate sexually themed search results, possibly under the auspices of a different character, Web site and brand altogether.

Ask Jeeves has registered "asksex.com" and "askadult.com," among other domain names.

Issues surrounding sexual material are nothing new to the company. Like other mainstream search and directory sites, it has long returned results for sexually explicit queries.

But a highly public venture focused on sexual content could present a difficult dilemma. Although such a move might be financially tempting, Ask Jeeves has bred a wholesome image with its butler character, drawn from the fiction of early 20th century English novelist P.G. Wodehouse, as well as its site for children's queries and its presence in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

"We're aware of the amount of adult content on the Internet and that historically it's one of the highest in terms of usage," said Ted Briscoe, senior vice president and general manager of Ask Jeeves' consumer service. "Our site has certainly mirrored a lot of the general demographics, so what we need to do is balance the needs of our users looking for that kind of material with those of others who find it offensive, without being judgmental."

The company said that it is still researching its options for handling the sexually themed material and that plans have been discussed for several months. A decision will be made by the end of this quarter, Briscoe said.

In addition to its free consumer service at Ask.com, Ask Jeeves outsources query databases to corporate Web sites, including those of Dell Computer, Microsoft and, as reported Friday, Nike and Fidelity. Any separate sex offering would still fall under the free consumer category.

Briscoe said a separate adult site or section are only two of the options being considered. "We're not certain which way we would go, but our goal is to create an environment that's safe, friendly and accessible for those interested in adult content--but to do it in a way that users are not exposed who don't want to see that," he said.

Last month, in an effort to establish some boundaries between sex-related and mainstream results, Ask Jeeves created a "jump" screen that warns users before returning search results with sexual content, including links to hard-core pornography.

The jump screen warns that search results "may point to a Web site containing material of a sexual nature, which may be inappropriate for children and offensive to some adults." By clicking past the jump screen to the results, users indicate that they are over 18 years of age, that they won't transmit the material to minors and that they won't hold Ask Jeeves responsible for the linked content.

Briscoe said Ask Jeeves had done "a lot of research" on different business models and ways to restructure its sex-related offerings, which now range from basic sex information sites to pornography. He also said Ask Jeeves had been in discussions with potential partners in the sex industry at the IA2000 conference in Las Vegas this month.

Ask Jeeves is hardly alone among mainstream directory and navigation sites in listing and linking to sexually themed Web sites. Editorially produced directories from Yahoo and Netscape's Open Directory Project, for example, offer extensive pornography and other sex listings.

But in mulling a separate character or sex-specific Web site, Ask Jeeves may be treading on dangerous branding territory.

"It is a hazard," said David Card, analyst with Jupiter Communications. "This is a company with a balloon in the parade and a kids' site. They have to be careful. What you get online is hard-core. It's not Playboy."

Briscoe acknowledged the branding risks in raising the profile of Ask Jeeves' sex content.

"We've invested a lot in building our brand," he said. "And Jeeves is not associated with this type of content. Candidly, we don't have the answer, but we are exploring everything from a non-branded site to one that would be character-based. With our navigation system people do relate to characters, certainly."

While proponents and detractors alike acknowledge that sex is the most successful paid-subscription model on the Net, Card said the sex industry's financial prospects are overrated. "I'm not bullish on the online porn market," he said.

Card's research indicates that paid content revenues from sex sites totaled less than $175 million in 1999, about 40 percent of all paid content online. But he expects sexual content to shrink to 17 percent of a $1.4 billion market by 2003 as subscription news and other content offerings take off.

At the same time, Card said creation of a sex-specific site could be a good way to divide X-rated material from the mainstream content. And an auxiliary business, such as a site tailored to sex-related search, could make financial sense.

"There are a ton of little sites out there, so the search part, the categorization part of it, amongst porn businesses, is probably the good one to be in," he said.

Other analysts agreed that Ask Jeeves was wise to refine its efforts in the online sex industry.

"I would assume that a lot of their top searches are related to sex, so if they're positioning a brand specifically to deal with that, it's probably a smart move," said Jupiter analyst Anya Sacharow. "Especially if they do indeed want to tap into that business and not alienate their regular user base."

Ask Jeeves, which posted increased losses last quarter and has since seen its stock skyrocket, reports new quarterly earnings tomorrow.