Ask.com CTO Lisa Kavanaugh On Teaching An Old Answer Site Brand-New Tricks

"We are no longer a general purpose search engine," Kavanaugh tells us. Instead, Ask.com uses proprietary, semantic search technology to deliver answers from its own content banks, community, experts, and from all over the web.

Today, Google captures nearly 65% of all U.S. search queries, according to ComScore. But Ask.com, the granddaddy of question and answer based search sites, isn't bowing out just yet. Established in 1996, Ask.com (it was then known as Ask Jeeves and is owned by IAC) has survived stiff competition from old-timers like Yahoo! and Google, but also newcomers, from Facebook to Quora.

The company's latest effort to hold and gain a new piece of the overall search market entails a brand-new Q&A community and mobile apps for iPhone and Android operating systems. How is this going to work?

"We are no longer a general purpose search engine," Ask.com's chief technology officer Lisa Kavanaugh tells Fast Company. Instead, Ask.com uses proprietary, semantic search technology to deliver answers from its own content banks and community, but also to point users in the direction of relevant answers from all over the web, or to experts (potential answer-ers) who have related interests, known expertise, and who have addressed a related question, perhaps on a site that would be deemed a competitor, like Quora.

The Ask.com user base includes 63 million domestic unique monthly users, now that the community features are live. Though the new Ask.com just came out of beta in September, user registration has already doubled. Engagement—represented by users asking questions, responding to answers, and voting—is stronger as well, Kavanaugh reports.

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The shift to Q&A (rather than plain old text-based search) caps a strategy that began with simple tweaks in the spring of 2010. Those included the launch of a new home page, and the introduction of a potentially addictive "Question of the Day" feature, a la "Word of the Day" from sister site Dictionary.com. Ask.com also debuted mobile apps 10 months ago in part "because research is that much more difficult to do on a small phone screen," says Kavanaugh.

Her objective is to capture a growing number of users on the go, who are commuting or traveling and looking for recommendations. With an increasingly mobile Internet, the benefit of Ask's Q&A community is two-fold, Kavanaugh believes. "If you want to know what's the curviest street in San Francisco, you don’t need to bother a person to find the answer. On the other hand, figuring out the best itinerary is a complex personal question, and a real person can give you an amazing answer," she said.

So far, Ask.com users are very engaged on mobile—Ask.com app users are still answering more questions than site users. Ask.com's mobile business has seen a 100% increase in visits from smart phones with 60% of that from Android users. Mobile accounts for 10% of its user traffic overall. Ask's iPhone app has been downloaded more than 1 million times already.

The positive user growth comes on the heels of a 23% increase in second-quarter revenue at Ask’s parent company IAC/InterActiveCorp., which also operates Match.com. The stock price jumped to $42.4 million, or 44 cents a share, on news that web-search products were on the uptick. It also is undoubtedly a positive reinforcement for media mogul Barry Diller, who acquired Ask for $1.85 billion.

The Ask.com team is coming out of a period of uncertainty; as its new features unfolded Diller mandated the cutting of some 130 engineering jobs, and conceded much of Ask's old, straight search business to competitors. However, Kavanaugh sees competing Q&A sites such as Facebook Questions and Quora as "validation that the category is growing," too.

Though the site is 15 years old, Kavanaugh says they are in experimental mode, especially with mobile: "We were the first 15 years ago. We have an advantage being an established player and our user base is entrenched. Now we need to pay attention to what’s going on and innovate."

Related Stories: Lisa Kavanaugh On Making Her Staff Less Afraid To Share Ideas; Q&A Site Quora Builds Buzz With A-List Answerers

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