Asking more of Ask.com than of Jeeves

Jim Lanzone takes over the revamped Ask.com. Now he has to satisfy a demanding boss in the person of Barry Diller.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
6 min read
Ask.com relaunched earlier this year with new features and a new logo as part of an attempt to shake off its old Ask Jeeves image. Now it also has a new chief executive--Jim Lanzone, who was promoted this week to replace Steve Berkowitz.

Berkowitz is leaving to head up Microsoft's Windows Live and MSN efforts, including search. Lanzone, formerly general manager at Ask.com, talked with CNET News.com about his plans for the search engine company that was acquired by Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp last year.

Q: Steve Berkowitz has been given much credit for the turnaround of Ask.com. Can you comment on what effect his departure will have on the company?
Lanzone: Well, you know, my objective is to continue down the road we're already on, in terms of the strategies for growth (and) for the way we operate the business. I think we feel very good about the way things are going for Ask, and really I just want to help push us faster down the path we're already on.

Are there any nondisclosure concerns with his moving to MSN?
Lanzone: Probably not. I'm probably not the best person to answer that.

What's it going to be like competing against your former boss?
Lanzone: Well, from what I understand, his scope will be a lot broader than search, which is where Ask is focused and why we think we're growing market share. People are definitely focused on a lot of things, and we've been focused on delivering our great products for our users in core search, which has a lot of room to grow in terms of innovation...When Steve was here, we enjoyed taking a bite out of the big guys, and we'll continue to enjoy that going forward.

Can you talk about the market share gains and how things are going at Ask since you launched with the new name and the new design?
Lanzone: We grew 7 percent in March, according to ComScore, and much of that was due to user experience and growth in retention of users and adding more everyday users. With Ask Jeeves, we were sort of an occasional use search engine for questions and answers, and a lot of our growth now is focused on becoming someone's primary search engine or alternative everyday search engine. So people have been very satisfied and the buzz out there about Ask is at an all-time high, and we just want to keep pushing the envelope in the areas we're already focused.

Searches are no longer just about getting you a relevant result. That was a novel concept in 2001 and 2002.

So you're still ranked No. 5. Can you tell when you're going to race ahead of the others and how you're going to compete against them, especially the likes of Google and Yahoo?
Lanzone: Growth for Ask should be measured against Ask as a percentage of our growth. What could be perceived to be a small market share gain relative to where the big guys are at is actually a huge percentage gain for the Ask business, and that's what makes us successful. That's what makes our business grow; it makes revenue grow. So, it's more comparable I would say to network television, where it's not as (if) one network gets all the viewers. Any point of share that Ask gains has a substantial impact on the success of our business. And so, really, we're focused on every point of share we can get and that is a long-term project for us. And we think we have good insight and strategy for how to go about it, and we're going to keep going down that path.

How does Ask differentiate itself from the other search engines?
Lanzone: Well, one way is that we're not a portal, and we're not being distracted by anything beyond core search. (Ask is innovating in areas like image search)...Our launch of image search in January has been called the best in the industry, was in an area that really hadn't been talked about in three years. But that's the second-leading kind of search performed on a search engine. So by improving that for users we doubled the number of searches done on our site in image search in three months, and that helped us grow market share.

That's one way (we differentiate), by focusing on where users need better products. The other way is through our differentiated tools. Searches are no longer just about getting you a relevant result. That was a novel concept in 2001 and 2002...Ask differentiates through a unique set of tools we've built, such as related search and binoculars and smart answers. When people are (aware) of these, we see our frequency and retention of usage grow significantly.

You said you're not going to get distracted by anything beyond search and you're not a portal. So I take it then you won't ever be moving into offering original content like Yahoo is doing, even if you could leverage the IAC relationship?
Lanzone: I don't know about IAC's plans for that...But for the Ask business we are focused wholeheartedly on core search, and the things that essentially bring us into areas that are traditionally associated with a portal such as news, weather, maps, directions. The way people get to that information through a search engine is through that one-way box. And so our user experience is geared towards giving people what they want through that search box, and that's a different approach from the way a portal would approach it.

I want to ask you about ad spending trends. Google's blowout quarter last week seems to put aside any concerns that online ad spending growth was dimming. What ad spending trends are you seeing at Ask.com and how long can search companies ride this wave?
Lanzone: Well right now, there is an insatiable demand for clicks, for traffic from online advertising...from search advertising...We're limited as an industry by the growth in the number of searches that are done, and so it's good to see that search overall has been growing at a 15 percent clip on a monthly basis. And search is still growing in the United States and especially worldwide, so I don't see any slowdown in the near future. At the end of the day you're (only) going to be constricted by inventory.

Any other revenue opportunities that you might be looking into?
Lanzone: For the Ask business, we can already make a lot of money through search. Our objective is getting more searches, not trying to make more money per search. And in fact, we've gone other ways where we have the least advertising on our page of any search engine. We don't have ads down the right-hand side of the page (as rivals have). We have our related search suggestions there, and so we've invested back into the user experience as opposed to try to make more money by putting more ads (on the search results page).

You're traveling internationally right now, aren't you?
Lanzone: Yes. I'm giving the keynote speech on Wednesday at the SES show in Milan, which is Danny Sullivan's Search Engine Strategies conference.

And how is Ask doing internationally?
Lanzone: Great. Prior to the acquisition by IAC, we were not in very many countries. We were in the U.S. and the U.K. and had just launched a site in Spain. After the acquisition, we're now continuing to launch sites in Europe. We're now in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, as well as Spain. And we continue also to operate in Japan. You will continue to see us growing internationally. It's another great way for us to grow market share and to grow the volume of searches that we have.

Ask.com has sort of been on the sidelines during the whole debate over Google, Yahoo and MSN self-censoring and cooperating with authorities in China, and I just want to see what's your take on that? Would Ask.com do anything differently?
Lanzone: I can't say what we would or wouldn't do. I'll just say we actually have launched a development team in China in the past six months, and we have every intention of operating in Asia. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.