Is the Future Flat for Ask?

Ask logoAsk3D 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?

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5 Responses to “Is the Future Flat for Ask?”

  1. Matthew Berk says at

    Ah, Ask. I actually believe that they already have a healthy dose of innovation, and 3D is a great example of that. The key, IMHO, to taking market share from the blindingly bright twin stars of G and Y, is neither marketing nor innovation: it’s disruption, and no large, established company has ever shown that in its DNA.

  2. Greg Sterling says at

    But with the plethora of startups fare better (powerset, cuill, wikia)?

  3. cohn says at

    Yes.

    Nothing…

    “The algorithm” campaign reminded me of a turd in a punch bowl. It may initially catch your eye but once it made you gag you turn elsewhere.

    I always thought the Ask campaigns were an attempt to arbitrage their Adwords spread anyway.

    Shouldn’t Diller have hired some bean counters to run some guzintas to see whether a TV Ad budget would convert its audience into a return on his investment or not?
    If it did, wouldn’t he already be buying all the air time he could get his hands on?

    As long as Google keeps their results relevant or until a new player fractures the market, the others will have to continue their fight for Google’s rounding errors…

  4. Greg Sterling says at

    So it would seem as Google seems to continue to gain share even as the market becomes more competitive.

  5. cohn says at

    Its because its their game.

    Kind of like what Matthew alluded to and as far as I can tell, market disruption hasn’t ever occurred at the hands of an incremental copycat.

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