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April 27, 2009

Navigating the Web Better on Ask

Back in December 2008, we started beta-testing our Domain Navigation product, and measurements showed that our searchers found it useful and enhanced their overall search experience.

Why is this helpful? Domain Navigation (a.k.a., ‘Domain Nav’ or site links) is the block of up to eight navigational links that may appear below the top organic result, depending on the query. The idea, on the surface, is simple: get the user one-click closer to their intended destination.

Estimates show that 11% to 25% of all search engine traffic is navigational in nature (Rose, Levinson, WWW 2004, Jansen, et. al., WWW 2007, Teevan, et. al., SIGIR 2007, Slawski, SEO By The Sea, March 13, 2008). Very loosely put, it’s about using the search engine to find and go to a known destination. 

This is what Domain Nav looks like, below, for a user who has simply typed in the term “Amtrak” into the main search box:

Amtrack

But more often than not, the navigational result is merely a stop-over to further navigation to their ultimate destination. In the example above, access to some type of travel specifics, logistics, or timetable information is likely to be more useful than the general, generic content on the front-page. 

A great example might be an entertainment site, like Disney:

Disney

... or a site like Food Network:

Food Network

This is an interesting (and important) product for many reasons beyond just getting the user one-click closer to their desired destination. Navigational links lend themselves to terse descriptions and are easily grasped by users when displayed in a tabular format. Furthermore they are filtered down to the most popular or most useful links on a particular site. This is very handy for cluttered sites that are difficult to navigate. 

From the search engine’s point of view, it is an opportunity to display a dense yet highly readable block of links which are closely related to the top result. The navigational block typically occupies one result slot. Now, in the space of two result slots which previously showed two links, we can now show as many as nine links. This greatly increases the probability of satisfying the user and speeding up the distance between the searcher and the right Answer.

An e-commerce site like Barnes & Noble is another good example, because most of the time we go to it knowing exactly the area we want to peruse off the home page – with Domain Nav, we take one (often time-consuming) step out of the user process:

Barnes and Nobel

Speaking of probabilities: organic ranking will frequently have some type of diversity goal among its objectives.  But when there is high confidence in the top result, it is useful to show other popular links from the same domain. This is essentially a type of ‘domain-locality’ which runs counter to the diversity objective.  Domain collapsing -- the indented results from the same domain as the un-indented result -- tries to capture this to some extent, but Domain Nav goes much further by displaying more links, all while using much fewer of those precious pixels on the SERP.

And then there is the trust issue – not to be underestimated in its importance to us at Ask. The Domain Nav process at Ask serves up links that users can trust, helping to protect from the darker side of the web. As we all know, one slip of the finger could land a web user in dangerous territory. When the cost of error is, say, a depleted bank account, users should give serious consideration to how they navigate to their online banking site. Typosquatters and phishing scams are out there trying to steal users’ identities, but search engines are a primary force in keeping them in check:

Bank of America

The Ask Domain Nav product has been rolling out in phases, both in terms of technology and in quantity of coverage. Just this past week, we greatly expanded this product’s coverage and many more improvements are already underway. We hope this product helps make your experience on Ask.com a bit more…answered.

Thanks for reading, and have fun navigating the web…on Ask!

Ben Kao
Senior Software Engineer, Ask.com

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April 10, 2009

Ask.com Supports Autism Speaks

As you probably know by now, April is Autism Awareness Month.

But you may not know that autism is diagnosed in one out of every 150 children in the U.S., and it affects boys at a rate four times more than girls.

Most sobering of all, autism has grown tenfold in the past decade.

It’s an illness that strikes at a child’s brain, limiting and disrupting their ability to communicate, affecting their personal relationships, and causing behavioral challenges for millions of parents.

This week we’ve introduced a charitable project to raise funds and awareness for a remarkable organization called Autism Speaks. Founded only four years ago by Suzanne and Bob Wright after their grandson Christian was diagnosed with autism, Autism Speaks is now the nation's largest autism science and advocacy organization, dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism. You can learn more at www.AutismSpeaks.org.

What’s unique about this project is that consumers don’t have to spend a dime to help. Simply using the Ask.com homepage Skins designed especially for this initiative generates donations. The way it works is this: every week this month, Ask is featuring a special homepage designed to educate consumers about autism. We donate $.50 to Autism Speaks for every new user who chooses an Autism Speaks Skin as their Ask.com homepage design.

These heart-warming Skins feature photos of children with autism, as well as original artwork by Andrew Bianchi, a 10-year old boy with autism from New York. The Skins display a series of questions that challenge consumers’ understanding of autism; for each correctly answered question, Ask donates another $.01 to Autism Speaks. Consumers can use Ask.com at any time to find the answer to a question, and simply answering a question correctly is counted towards the total donation amount. Ask.com is promoting this special program directly on the Ask.com homepage several days throughout the month of April, as well as in the Ask.com Skins Gallery at www.ask.com/skins.

Skin_autismSpeaks_v02C

It’s that simple. A few clicks can make a difference toward finding a cure for autism and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. We hope you’ll share our project with your friends and family and encourage them to get involved. 

Thanks for reading.
Robbie Waeschenfelder, Senior Marketing Manager

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April 02, 2009

Thoughts on Some Recent New Search Features...

At the Search Engine Strategies conference in NYC last week on the Blended Search Panel, I spoke about one way that Ask categorizes user search sessions. This categorization model includes:

 o Discrete Task Completion - where the user is undertaking a one-and-done transaction, expecting the search engine to have the correct result or answer at the top of the search reply page.

 o Investigation/Research - the user is in a focused activity, with a succession of deep dives into information, cross-checking various sources, and searching FAQs.

 o Entertainment/Exploration - the user is searching with an open mind, and interested in increasing general knowledge or to be entertained.

 o Ask.com has focused intently on the user, and for years we've offered a variety of features specifically designed and targeted to assist users in these categories of searches.

So it was timely, as I was speaking about the above at SES-NY, that Google and Microsoft announced new search releases which align with long-standing Ask.com features in these areas.

Google announced that it was implementing search refinements on their SERPs. You can read about this on SearchEngineLand, which describes how this technology was brought to Google through the acquisition of Orion. Providing refinements are important to users who are doing Investigation/Research and Entertainment/Exploration activities, and Ask.com has understood the importance of this feature for many years.

For the query "Call of the Wild", Google has added the following search refinement at the bottom of the SERP:

Call of the wild_google   
These refinements help a student who needs to explore deeper into the topics covered by the novel, i.e. research. For this same query, Ask provides this feature with Related Searches on the right panel of the window, visible at the top of the page. We're extremely confident in this prominent placement, because we have years of experience with users interacting with this feature.

Ask's Related Search feature delivers important "drill in" capability, as is exemplified with the "Klondike Gold Rush" suggestion, which is a topic that is central to the novel:

Call of the wild_ask  

Ask's Related Search is available on the vast majority of user queries, and supports both Investigation/Research, as well as Entertainment/Exploration searches. You can see how your exploration can be enhanced by viewing the Related Searches for the query "Australia Beaches".


We at Ask were also encouraged and heartened to see last week’s announcement of Instant and Active Answers by Microsoft. This feature is largely focused on Discrete Task Completion tasks, where the user is seeking a quick piece of information or a quick solution to a problem. You can read about Microsoft's release on Search Engine Journal.

Ask has been providing this important capability, called Smart Answers, for almost a decade. We've focused the technology on providing functionality that is integral to the lives of our users. Some examples include:

What time does the sunrise in Sydney Australia

Sunrise in Australia  
 
What is the State Motto for New Hampshire

New Hampshire  
 
Weather next week in Paris France

Weather Paris  
 
I hope that you'll take advantage of the rich feature set provided by the Ask search engine. We’ve been at it for a while, and we’d like to think we’ve blazed a trail on unique and core search features. If you do, you'll find that Ask gets your answers quicker, that it speeds up your research tasks, and that you'll learn more while exploring the Internet...

Thanks for reading!
- Keith Hogan, VP, Technology, Ask,com

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Opinions expressed here and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors, not of IAC Search & Media and may not have been reviewed in advance.

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