Review: Ask3D – Ask's revamped search engine

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askcom.gifI’m choosing to forget Ask’s rather bizarre ‘propaganda’ advertising of their new search “Ask 3D” search engine as I take a look at how effective it is as a tool, and whether it’s going to pose a threat to Google.

There’s more to Ask3D than the slightly shiny, icon-based eye candy that greets you when you arrive at their front page.

Both Google and Ask are keen to offer a more holistic approach to search results. A search for “Steve Jobs” in Google brings up the usual listing of results, but interspersed with news and video. It’s easy to find these items by scrolling through the results, but they’re not particularly distinct at first glance.

Ask, on the other hand, clearly separates regular web pages, listed in the middle column, from multimedia content and the latest news, displayed in sections in the right-hand column. It’s an elegant layout, marred only slightly by the “Sponsored Results” boxes which don’t integrate as well as their Google counterparts, and can sometimes take up to half of the screen before search results are displayed.

The left hand column contains useful search modifiers. It allows you to narrow your search (to “Steve Jobs Biography” or “Steve Jobs Apple” for example), to expand the search to include other keywords, or to search for related items (“Bill Gates”, “Steve Wozniak”).

As with Google, it’s possible to focus on particular types of content, such as images or blogs.

There are some nice Web 2.0 features in the search results. Hovering over any search result brings up an icon in the top right hand corner which allows you to save it to your “MyStuff” area. Much like Google, you have to sign up for a personal account to use this feature, but once enabled, you can create your own set of bookmarks on the service.

Whether that’s for you depends on how you use the web. It’s a feature that both Google and Ask employ to keep people using their search engine (there’s no obvious “export” function). I prefer to use my browser’s bookmarking feature, but Ask’s online alternative is competent and useful for those who want to keep their bookmarks while away from home.

Each search result also displays a pair of binoculars icon. Hovering over the icon brings up a thumbnail view of the resulting web page, together with its estimated size and how long it will take to download.

When searching through blogs, more options appear below each search result, allowing subscription to the RSS feed, or posting the article to a selection of social bookmarking services such as Digg and del.icio.us.

The business finder looks promising, with results plotted on a local map. It currently only covers North America.

The ultimate question, though, is how does Ask compare with Google when it comes to basic searching? My highly unscientific experiment suggests that Ask seems to return a more commercialised set of results.

Searching for “video camera” in Google brings up a number of ‘independent’ review sites and Wikipedia entries, with the first commercial company not appearing until position 7. The same search on Ask brings up Sony as the first result, after wading through price comparison and sponsored results. The results do get better the more refined the search is.

Having said that, less commercial search terms, such as “rural walks” bring up similar results on both search engines.

Google usually says that it has a LOT more search results than Ask, but since both generally run into the millions for popular terms, that shouldn’t be a problem. Perhaps it means that Ask’s results are more focused?

I’m generally quite impressed with Ask’s new look (though I still think Jeeves should be brought out of retirement). I think it trumps Google on multimedia searches, and its interface doesn’t noticeably slow it down.

It can certainly stand up to the likes of Google, but whether it will become popular will depend on how it converts people. Perhaps something a bit less esoteric than their “Information Revolution” campaign for their next marketing drive would help.

Ask

Andy Merrett