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Ask's grabbing some of the spotlight

CEO gives one of only two keynotes at Search Engine Strategies conference in sign of how far the company's profile has come since the near-death days of Ask Jeeves.

If being one of only two keynotes at the search industry's largest annual trade show means anything, then Ask has some bragging rights.

At the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday morning, Chief Executive Jim Lanzone talked about the success of the latest interface redesign and downplayed privacy scares with search engines. He also showed a new television ad the company is running that won't see a backlash like a recent Ask marketing campaign did.

Ask's new customizable search page.

The TV ad, which has no voice-over, follows a cursor as it navigates through the different options on an Ask search results page, including the ability to narrow or expand the search and see image previews, news, video and customized weather. The video then goes to a rival search engine, which shows just a list of text results. It rolls out nationwide next week.

"Our plan is to get more product-specific and tell you in detail why we do search better," Lanzone said in an interview after the keynote.

Through technology and interface improvements, Ask has clawed its way past AOL to become the fourth-largest search engine in market share, behind Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. "It's the fastest-growing in market share for the past year," Lanzone said.

The company is Google's largest global partner, according to Lanzone. "We partner on the ad side and compete like heck on the user side," he said. Ask's search advertising partnership with Google expires this year. All Lanzone would say in response to questions following the keynote was: "We are in negotiations today."

The first three-year contract the two companies signed in 2002 was worth $100 million when it was announced. "This year, whether we renew with them or go with someone else, it's going to be a multibillion-dollar deal," he said.

Meanwhile, Lanzone said the recent race between the search engines to improve privacy for Web searchers has been overhyped, despite the fact that Ask's moves have been deemed by some (including CNET to be among the most valuable to consumers.

"I think there is a big industry around making people scared of what could happen," he said. "I'm just saying that in 15 years, search engines have had one mishap in this area (with AOL last year). In general, we are trusted resources. The data that is collected is anonymous and in the aggregate. There are people for whom it is important."

Lanzone said Ask would also move toward "collective search," allowing people to get different search results based on affinity groups, or communities.

"What Ask becomes is collective, where 50 million users are leaving bread crumbs for each other as a search for what they find valuable," Lanzone said in comments after his keynote speech.

It was odd that Yahoo wasn't doing more at the show. But given the slowing growth in display ads, loss of search market share, disappointing quarterly financials and recent management shakeup, maybe it makes sense for the company to have a low profile right now.

Behind the scenes, the moves have been interesting to watch, as well--Ask has recruited employees from Yahoo and AOL, another search company in transition, to create its new internal PR team.

And who is giving the other keynote at the show? Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google, of course. She talks on Wednesday morning.

UPDATE Aug. 23: To be fair, after spending more time at the conference I see that Yahoo did have a gaggle of executives on panels and sessions and a big booth on the show floor (although Google's and Ask's were front and center).