Ask and You Shall Receive… Products

Web search technology provider Ask Jeeves, Inc. today announced the addition of Smart Search for Products, the latest in a rash of shopping-oriented search products released in time for this year’s holiday season.

The tool from Emeryville, Calif.-based Ask Jeeves uses data from its research on online and offline shopping behavior, and delivers what its system calculates to be the most relevant information. It appears in a red-outlined Smart Search results box at the top of the page.

Results come from a mix of Web search, third-party product search and Ask Jeeves natural language processing technologies. If the technology determines that a searcher is looking for products, it automatically delivers the searcher to the shopping channel. The company says its natural language capabilities allow it to recognize where the user is in the shopping cycle and deliver the right stuff. Product information comes from Los Angeles, Calif.-based PriceGrabber.com.

For example, if someone types “camera” into the query box, the Ask.com system would deliver a choice of categories into the Smart Search results box to clarify the query. Below that would be a list of paid listings, followed by the results of what the company calls “classic Web search.” If the user types in the name of a specific model of camera, Smart Search for Products will deliver product comparisons and reviews.

“Most search engines assume searchers are ready to buy, said senior product manager Cathie Smithers. “We identified a real gap in early-stage research shopping,” she said. “People do want to see products, but only when they’ve narrowed the field enough to make it relevant.”

Ask Jeeves launched Smart Search in April. For some queries, such as images, news, state and country capitals, and dates for holidays, Smart Search also delivers direct content to the Ask Jeeves results page. The company said it receives the highest proportion of “shopping” category searches among the top five search engines and portals, according to a Fall 2003 report from @Plan.

Smithers said that users are responding well to Smart Product Search, which has been in beta for more than a month. She said more than double the number of people clicked on the smart answers than clicked on the previous product information results, and page abandonment — the rate of people leaving the page without clicking on anything — went down about 30 percent.

The service is part of a trend commingling e-commerce and search.

Shopping.com, formerly DealTime, recently changed its service to integrate consumer reviews courtesy of the newly acquired Epinions. It operates on the pay-per-click model of Google and Overture, where advertisers pay to have their listings included in product databases.

In September, Yahoo announced it had integrated its own shopping channel with product search. It offers a mix of paid listings and natural search results, with results ranked according to relevance. Like Ask Jeeves Smart Product Search, Yahoo Product Search includes product information, reviews and e-commerce links. Yahoo recently complete its acquisition of Overture, but has released no specific details about how it will integrate or change Overture’s PPC search service.

Google, for its part, separates the paid listings from natural search results on its Froogle product comparison site, launched in December 2002.

What Ask Jeeves aims to add is an automatic response to users’ unspecified needs, using its language analytics to make educated guesses about where in the shopping cycle a particular user is. “We’re trying to position Ask Jeeves as a search engine that has a human understanding of what people want,” said Smithers. “We’re the only search engine that intuitively returns a smart answer to help the person shop. You don’t have to say you want to do a product search. It’s one less hoop they have to jump through.”

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