What does Ask’s failure mean for search?

Photo by Fridgeuk

I was really sad to hear about the layoffs and change of strategy at Ask. They were working really hard to do something different with search, and this can only help fuel the belief that search doesn’t need to change. I didn’t always like the end result, and I never switched to using them fulltime, but they were the only mainstream engine that was moving the technology forward.

I won’t go into the history behind their retreat, other people have already done better jobs than I ever could. Danny Sullivan has the best overall roundup, and Jonathan Salem Baskin did a prescient piece on their marketing problems back in January. What I’m interested in is where it leaves the alternative search engine industry?

Ask had some great advantages over a startup. They had a large group of existing users to test new ideas on. Their history and contacts helped them publicize their new technology, and if they achieved a breakthrough their user base would mean a lot of word-of-mouth buzz. They also had a massive marketing budget, though it ended up being spent in some strange ways. My hope was that they would succeed by either come up with a killer feature in-house, or combining with one of the promising startups. Showing that users really do want more out of search would then trigger a technology arms race with the big guys, and we’d all benefit from some progress forward.

Instead, any challenger to Google’s crown will now have to organically build a user base, gather contacts and marketing resources. I’m still confident that there is a better way to search than a flat list of links, but this removes one of the paths to proving that. I hope it doesn’t make the investment climate harder for those small horizontal search engines too.

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