Questions for Scott Garell, Ask Jeeves’ Executive VP of Search

Justin Kirby While Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are perhaps the most scrutinized companies playing in search right now, none of them has generated as many surprises this year as Ask Jeeves.

The Emeryville, Calif.-based search company has been on a whirlwind course of growth, achieved through acquisitions and new technology. Its purchase of Interactive Search Holdings in May gave it a stake in several second tier portals and their accompanying email offerings. Ask Jeeves also bought Tukaroo in June, vaulting it into the desktop search space, to which many industry watchers have conveyed “next big thing” status.

Further, Ask Jeeves is developing new technology in-house at a rapid rate. Recently added to its proprietary Teoma engine are innovations such as “binoculars,” a graphical search tool. Simultaneously, the company dropped paid inclusion completely from its offerings. It has reported significant boosts in sales and more than doubled its Internet traffic, becoming the sixth most-trafficked Web property in June.

ClickZ recently caught up with Scott Garell, Ask Jeeves’ executive VP of search, to discuss what’s afoot for the company. Garell has been in his role for three months, and is presiding over many of the big changes now underway in this formerly small-fry firm.

Q. The search arms race among the giants is picking up. How do you compete?

A. Ask Jeeves is one of the three core search engines that exist. We do not believe in a need for one user experience and one Web site. Rather, we see demand fragmenting over time.

Think about the way other media evolved as they matured. With television, fragmentation happened with the proliferation of cable channels. This applies even to the way branded products have evolved. I used to be at Clorox, running their U.S. businesses. Basically you see a lot of product segmentation.

If people were so satisfied using just Yahoo and Google, we wouldn’t be reaching [approximately] 40 million unique users a month across our properties. We have been growing faster than the market every quarter this year.

Q. To what do you attribute your rapid growth in the face of all that spending by larger competitors?

A. We think it’s because we’re continuing to innovate with the user experience. What we’re trying to do is help users find what they need in the smartest, most intuitive way. We believe at the end of the day that search should not be 10 blue links, and should give people what they want. If you type in “weather in New York,” you’re not going to get 10 blue links; you’ll get the weather in New York. The same goes for movies. You’ll be able to get the film trailer, reviews and screening times.

The other reasons we think we’re growing faster is we continue to innovate in our delivery of search. We just launched the “binoculars” feature, which lets people find what they’re looking for 30 to 50 percent faster. The feedback has been very positive.

We’ve got strong brands and a real desire to listen to our users and give them what they want. Ultimately, we approach search a little bit differently.

Q. How will you capitalize on the momentum?

A. I think it’s continuing to innovate around the user experience with our broad portfolio brands and services. Until Microsoft finishes optimizing their product, there are only three core search technologies. Ours is very different from Google and Yahoo

We need to absolutely continue to make that a strong and differentiated part of our business. If we’re able to innovate around features people want across a variety of brands, we think that’s a winning formula.

Q. What’s the significance of the Interactive Search Holdings acquisition? How do you intend to leverage some of the accompanying media categories you didn’t play in before, such as email?

A. The acquisition of ISH enhanced our position in the search market and helped us build a diverse portfolio of brands that will deliver varied search experiences to varied target segments. These include MyWay, Excite and iwon. MyWay is a very rapidly growing portal, because it’s so clean, so fast and gives the users what they want. It’s in the top five portals on the Web.

E-mail is a very important loyalty-driving tool for those portal properties. Since we’ve officially closed the portal acquisition for only a couple months, we’re still figuring out how to optimize it. Just as Ask Jeeves has worked to improve its user experience, we’ll do the same with email and the portal properties.

Ask Jeeves in June purchased Tukaroo, a desktop search company. We are at this point building our plans to figure out how to best integrate and optimize that with the Ask Jeeves environment. We know there’s a user need, and we will be to market in the near future with a solution that delivers on that need.

Q. You just renewed your deal to let Google handle keyword bidding on Ask Jeeves’ search network for three more years. Why not develop your own keyword management system to replace the Google relationship?

A. It’s a great partnership. Our volume drives more people into their network, and we think it’s better to be building our site around the user experience, so that when people come, they’re getting what we consider to be a better and different experience. It’s good for advertisers and good for users.

Q. How would you describe Ask Jeeves’ culture, as a new employee?

A. I think you have a very driven, hungry and aggressive team. Think about this company having survived some tough times, and then getting the Teoma technology and improving the user experience. The people who came through that have an incredible intensity and focus and hunger.

We are not satisfied with having a 7 percent share. We think there is plenty of room in this category for a third company to situate, and we’re building a long-term goal around that. It’s been very inspiring.

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