Ask3D is in many ways a bolder version of Google’s Universal Search or the comparable “blended search” being featured across engines now. Jim Lanzone was the architect of that innovation, which has given Ask’s traffic a modest bump and apparently increased the frequency of casual Ask users. But Lanzone, as is widely known, is out in favor of Jim Safka, who used to run Match.com and who currently runs IAC’s venture arm.
What’s interesting to consider is whether Ask can grow to the 7%-10% market share that IAC head Barry Diller was hoping to develop when he bought Ask in 2005. Ask is a cash cow of sorts but it seems a bit stuck in its sub-5% market share. Diller’s apparent belief is that Ask only needs more marketing exposure to gain share and so he brought in Safka. Here’s Saul Hansell from the NY Times:
Out is Jim Lanzone, the highly-regarded executive, who spearheaded the site’s redesign, called Ask 3d. In is Jim Safka, who had run Match.com and later Primal Ventures, IAC’s venture arm. Mr. Safka is most remembered for renovating Match’s advertising with a campaign featuring Dr. Phil McGraw, the self-help expert. Several IAC executives told me the move reflects Mr. Diller’s belief that what Ask needs was better high profile advertising. Mr. Safka, indeed, is seen as more marketing oriented, while Mr. Lanzone was more interested in building Ask’s core search engine as well as creating flashy features that will differentiate it from that other very very very large search engine. He clashed with Mr. Diller, the IAC executives said, over how much to spend for engineers and servers. Mr. Diller, a former movie studio and television executive, often takes a personal hand in the marketing of his companies, from the design of their logos to the scripts of their commercials.
The right marketing campaign — “the algorithm” was not it — might gain notice and give the company another bump. But Diller’s goal can only be achieved, if it can be achieved, with a long-term vision and sustained product innovation. That doesn’t seem to be the prevailing philosophy however.
So what if Ask can’t move substantially beyond where it is today; it’s still a near billion dollar business. What if it stays there? If Yahoo! and Microsoft are having trouble “moving the needle” what would enable Ask to do so?