Keynote Conversation with Jim Lanzone of Ask.com

Aug 21, 2007 • 1:26 pm | comments (0) by twitter | Filed Under Search Engine Strategies 2007 San Jose
 

Ask.com CEO Jim Lanzone talks with conference co-chair Chris Sherman about Ask.com's challenge to its more trafficked peers to steal away searchers, including how the launch of its new Ask3D interface is going.

Jim Lanzone of Ask.com and Chris Sherman

Chris Sherman introduces Jim and asks about the product, and we're off!

Jim: We've always looked beyond technology and thought about the consumer. When we launched Ask City, we created a 3-panel interface that corresponds to the three stages of search. We knew we were onto something when we saw that the standard 10 blue links wasn't necessarily the best way - we wanted to give them the right thing at the right time. We're giving them more content and tools. The reaction is phenomenally fast-growing. Our internal metrics are up a lot. We'll keep putting our focus on the user in the next generation of search.

Chris: In terms of those numbers, is it an increased market share or is it too early for that? Jim: Market share is good to see on an annual basis. Frankly, with what comScore came out yesterday, the whole concept of market share came on its head with eBay queries being counted. We're more concerned about our internal growth.

The only motivation we need is that we have billions of searches every second that goes by, there's a search that is not being satisfied. We think that we need to address that and the market share will take care of itself.

Chris: You have a relationship with Google, but what about a love-hate relationship as they're your competitor? Jim: There's a reason why we're a partner with the biggest ad network. We've been partners since 2002 and it was controversial since we chose them over Overture. The first deal we announced was a 3-year $100 million deal. If we renew, it will be a multi-billion dollar deal. We're friends with them, and when we're off the court, we're cordial. But when we look at search, we're competing for users. We have our own angle on how to do search well. It's what we call coopetition - competition in search but cooperative partnership.

Chris: Ask had a near-death experience in 2000. How did you pull through? Jim: I came through acquisition in May of 2001 when stock was at $0.79. All the investment was in the software business. There were 17 different ad products on the page to be profitable. The first thing we did was that we narrowed the focus. Then we bought a 7-person search engine called Teoma and we integrated it on the search engine in September of 2001. All of our gains have come from usage on our site while other competing engines faded away.

Chris: I've heard some analysits say that Ask is going to become the IAC search engine because of IAC's ownership of Ticketmaster, etc. How do you work with these partners? Jim: On one hand, we prioritize some of these guys less - we give them less favoritism. For us, we look at them as sources of data. We took raw data from Ticketmaster, for example, and built our own search structured engine on top of that, which allowed us to get under the hood differently. That's one reason why Ask City did so well because of the quality of search.

Chris: I'm interested in terms of your own internal culture - in terms of Yahoo, they're fairly compartmentalized; but Google works in small teams. Microsoft is the huge cross-functional team. What kind of approach do you take to leadership in Ask and how do you work together? Jim: We put a lot of emphasis in putting the right brand together. 75% of our employees are engineers of some sort. We're not looking for all Stanford graduates. They all work together. We're also very virtual. A lot of employees are in Edison, NJ. We put a lot of emphasis on the combination of art and science and make sure it works together as a product that is coherenet and intuitive.

Chris: It seems like this year we had an outbreak of concern of privacy. This year, however, the search engines responded and you created Ask Eraser. How do you see the privacy issue? Do you think the users need to give up privacy for utility? Jim: I think it was a slow-news summer because that got such publicity. We're concerned about privacy. For people who are concerned about privacy, we launched Ask Eraser. If people don't want tracking, it will be removed within a few hours of opting in. If it's important to you, the nuances won't matter.

Chris: Will you still be able to do personalization with this implementation? Jim: You need to opt-in for these. We're not turning any of these features on automatically.

Chris: I seem to recall eTour as a remote control for the web and it's remarkably similar to StumbleUpon. Are you going back to that? Jim: We raised a lot of money and we had an IPO set up. The business model was pre-search. It worked for some people and not for others. This was about the next generation of searches. Whether that fits into search today, we're not sure about that. We're focusing on search for us so I don't know if we'll revisit that.

Chris: You mention that some people are not necessarily interacting similarly to search results. What are the implications of this on traditional SEO? Jim: What surprises me is that 50% usage of the page is not in the web results. Search suggestions are being chosen 10% of the time. When you count all of these other featues, it's really changing the way that page is. Some of the emphasis needs to go on video, image, and other content that is on the page. We obviously put content where our competitors have ads. There's more content above the fold on Ask than on other search engines. People are clicking the More button less because they're finding what they want on the page, so it gives the editorial side a chance to swim. We're not just thinking about how we tweak the results. We want to give the right exeperience at the right time. When you start thinking that way, it's different than what search was 5-10 years ago.

Chris: Since you have a partnership with Google, why would people want to advertise with you as opposed to Google? Jim: Your placement is higher on the page than on Google when it's more relevant and money. Placement is more important. You also have direct access to the data. For certain advertisers, there's a lot of money to be made in tuning ads for Ask. A new reason to come with Ask is that our contextual ads are served to 71 million users. Chris: But contextual ads don't convert as highly becasue it's not search. This is really a compelling question - what is your reach for these ads? Jim: It's like any other contextual advertising channel. There will be so much growth on the user side as it becomes bigger with the value we create. You can fine tune the ads.

Chris: You say that search is undervalued, but I think that keywords are going to get a lot more expensive. Jim: I think this will happen over time. I think we have ads in tuning with the industry - it's hard to isolate metrics over any one time. It's going to be worth a lot more money. It's natural in any auction based system that things get more expensive. It's more valuable. Everyone is going to put their money on the good keywords.

Chris: How sophisticated do you think the big brands are with search marketing today? Where are the bigger players in terms of their awareness of search, allocations of budget, and so on? Jim: It hasn't been great. A lot of companies have to learn a lot about IAC. A lot of firms are beinging SEMs inhouse. They are getting better at it but they still have a lot to learn. Traditional ad agencies need to learn a lot about online advertising. They're going to need the expertise of everyone in this room to help.

Chris: Mobile search is an area you're focusing on. How do you see these vertical areas in the blended approach? Jim: Think about in terms of 3 pages - the first page where you search, the second where you see results, and then going deeper. The deeper might be a vertical where you jump off, or it could be someone's webpage. That's how the first smart answer was created. We focus on verticals because we saw user behavior: I see how people are searching and there are things that they can see beyond 10 blue links. Mobile is interesting becasue that's not a vertical; that's a platform. In the next 10 years, we're all plugging into the same grid. The trick is how do you deliver information to that platform? It's amazing to be able to type in P, have a search suggestion for Pizza, and then get information about your local areas using GPS. It's a good area to innovate in.

Chris: What else do you want to focus on in mobile? Jim: We want to bring the web to the mobile device. There's no search box on the mobile page. Some people didn't want to scroll through all these links becasue web pages aren't being customized for mobile. I don't think mobile isn't all about local. How do we bring the web to mobile? We're focusing on that.

Chris: How do you work with the carriers who limit to other search properties? Jim: I think that these carriers will need to satisfy the needs of the users. We need to all work together and get along.

Chris: Google is taking an FDC auction of air space. Do you think there's any chance of that going through? Jim: I don't know. It's very far focused from what we do.

Chris: Let's go back to what you're doing on Ask. User experience is important. How are you diving deeper into personalization? Jim: We're doing a lot more. The first thing is that everyone sees this on their Amazon recommendations - just because I searched once for "fishing" doesn't mean that you are interested in fishing. I think that personalization has gone overboard in some areas. The sweet spot of enhancin the value of the results is on the collective. That's something we're focusing on in our Edison algorithm. Collective is important and personalization is at a sublevel. We see this in bloglines; the number of people who go personalize their page is not a mass market number. We're going to build those tools.

Chris: You mentioned the Edison algorithm. Ask was going to be tagging content every time people clicked on a link. Are you going to use the words as the title of the page as tags? Jim: It's going to take an incredible body of information - so it's not as simple as taking just that data.

Then Jim talks about my BFF and how she covered a recent Ask.com advertisement that compares Ask to other search engines like Google Altavista. Yay Lisa!

Chris: People still underestimate the role of internet in their lives. How do you see it in the future? Jim: Conversions is a big factor. Blogs are the start of it. It's about images, video, audio, etc. It will become your personal navigation device in the upcoming decades. People don't want to take the trouble to customize pages. They're going to want to expect this one box, whether it be their computer, TV, or phone, to deliver what they're looking for at any given time.

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