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Ask returns to its Q&A roots

The No. 4 search engine aims to combine its question-and-answer model with the insights of its user community. is retooling its search results with a renewed focus on its Q&A roots.

The search company announced late Monday that it had officially launched a public beta that focuses on its proprietary question-and-answer model. However, the company will not only relay Web results to provide potential solutions to users' queries; Ask also plans to draw on the insight of its community, the company explained in a blog post.

"Now available on an invite-only basis...the capability to pose questions to real people is now possible for those complex, subjective and/or time-sensitive queries that, no matter how advanced, computers simply can't address," according to the blog, which was penned by Tony Gentile, senior vice president of product, and Lisa Kavanaugh, senior vice president of technology at Ask. Users can get an invite by submitting a request at the site.

Interest in "social search," which allows people to ask and answer questions among a community of fellow users, has exploded in recent months. Others working in that area include Yahoo Answers, Mahalo, and Quora.

In February, search giant Google announced it had acquired social-search provider Aardvark, which scans the profiles of users designated as friends in an attempt to match their expertise or interests with a query.

In June, Q&A site Quora was launched to the public by a group of former Facebook employees, including Adam D'Angelo, the social network's former chief technology officer. Facebook also appears to be getting in on the action, testing a feature called "Facebook Questions."

Like all the major search engines, Ask thinks that the rise of semantic search--the idea that a search engine will understand the intent behind your query, not just the keywords--complements its approach to presenting search results.

However, Ask lags Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft by a wide margin, according to ComScore's latest figures on the search market. Ask is a distant fourth in the search market, fielding only 3.6 percent of Internet search queries, compared with Google's 62.6 percent, Yahoo's 18.9 percent, and Microsoft Bing's 12.7 percent.