August 22, 2007 / 12:50 AM / 12 years ago

Collective search is next focus, Ask.com CEO says

SAN JOSE, California (Reuters) - Ask.com, the small rival to Google Inc., aims to tap the collective search habits of its 50 million users to improve the relevancy of Web search, its chief executive said on Tuesday.

Jim Lanzone told an Internet marketing conference that his company, a unit of Barry Diller’s e-commerce conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp, was looking to merge technologies that unlock the collective insights of its broad audience.

“What Ask becomes is a collective search engine where 50 million users are leaving bread crumbs,” Lanzone said.

In an on-stage interview at the Search Engine Strategies conference in Silicon Valley, Lanzone contrasted Ask.com’s more social approach to improving Web search to the industry’s current push to offer greater personalization.

He said attempts at automated personalization often fail in practice to give users what they want.

Instead, Web search can be improved by understanding the aggregate behavior of different types of users. This collective approach means users stand to benefit from what users with similar interests have gleaned from previous searches.

“Collective search is something that Ask really believes in,” Lanzone said, adding that personalizing what different users see is only a small piece of further improving search.

To be sure, the changes are one of degree, rather than an absolute shift. All major Web search systems rely on algorithms that analyze the collective surfing habits of their users in order to determine what is relevant to the biggest audience.

This affinity-group approach means users who work as Web marketers might see searchers that other marketers found useful, while baseball fans might see a different range of search results, Lanzone said.

Lanzone downplayed the potential threats to personal privacy that can be gleaned from understanding the aggregate behavior of different types of users.

“In 15 years, search engines have had one mishap in this area,” he said of the threat of major Internet companies exposing data on consumer Web surfing habits. A year ago, AOL researchers caused a huge privacy uproar when they released data on the surfing habits of hundreds of thousands of users.

Ask.com revealed in April that it was working on a new project to merge its different search technologies under a combined service.

The project, known as Edison, will combine its Teoma ExpertRank technology for automatically gauging the relevance of Web sites to particular searches with its DirectHit technology, which calculates the popularity of different searches based on the number of clicks users make.

Ask is looking to build on improvements it introduced in June with its new Ask 3D search service. Ask 3D combines the classic text links to Web pages with links to images, videos, dictionaries, blogs and other ways of refining searches.

Separately, Lanzone said his company has begun talks on a new, Web search advertising deal worth multiple billions of dollars to replace an existing three-year deal with Google that is set to expire later this year.

In 2002, Ask.com, then known as Ask Jeeves, struck a $100 million deal with Google. A renewed deal from 2005 to 2007 was for undisclosed terms. A third such deal would start in 2008.

“We are in negotiations today,” Lanzone said in an interview following his speech. “Whether we renew or not, it is going to be a multi-billion deal,” he said earlier, during his conference presentation.

He declined to specify whether Ask.com was in talks with Google or potential rivals including Microsoft Corp or Yahoo! Inc..

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