Gary Price posted an item to ResourceShelf recently about Fred & my new paper in RSR. And when he did, he emailed me to let me know he had, which I consider to be very good blog netiquette. He did the same thing when he posted a link to that paper when it was a wee technical report, so I can only assume that he makes a regular practice of alerting his link recipients. How he has enough hours in a day to post several links per day to ResourceShelf and DocuTicker, plus email all of his linkees, plus have a real job, I have no idea.
Anyway, we emailed back & forth & set up a phone conversation a couple of days ago. Gary recently took a job with Ask.com, & he wanted to tell me about some of the new cool things they’re doing. I have to admit, I saw this new commercial for Ask.com on TV recently, & thought, yeah whatever, sure librarians love Ask.com. But actually now I’m revising my opinion, which was based on when it was still Ask Jeeves. And as much as I love the original Jeeves, I didn’t think too much of the other one.
Anyway, Ask.com has implemented a bunch of really cool features. Note the Search Tools displayed on the righthand side of the page. Some, like maps and directions, and weather are clearly trying to do Google & the other major engines one better. But type an ISBN into Ask & you get a link to isbn.nu, instead of Amazon as the top link. And Ask has both driving & walking directions, which is especially cool — I’ve thought many times, walking across campus with its never-ending construction, that walking directions would be useful. It will even play the directions: turn left on this street, turn right on that street. Next step: synch that to a handheld or a car’s navigation system.
But here are the really cool new features of Ask. First, for most searches, again on the righthand side, 3 categories are generated: Narrow Your Search, Expand Your Search, & Related Names. How these are generated are, as Gary puts it, part of Ask’s “special sauce.” But apparently they’re generated from some analysis of “communities of interest” on the web, which I assume means some sort of network analysis with weightings.
The other cool feature is what Gary called Ask’s Smart Answers. Ask has I presume scraped several online reference sources: the CIA World Factbook, the IMDb, Wikipedia, the State Department, a bunch of others. When you search on some named entity, often links to these sites come up at the top, in an attempt to do some pre-emptive ready reference.
Anyway, it’s clear that Ask.com is positioning itself as a major player in the search engine wars. They have a lot of inertia to overcome, but personally I’d like to see them succeed. They’ve added some very cool functionality. And they’ve hired one librarian, so clearly they understand the value of what it is we do. One hopes they’ll hire more.