Ask.com Morphs — But Does it Make a Difference?

We already know that Google dominates search, with a whopping 48.3% of market share that just continues growing, leaving competitors throwing caution to the wind in bold moves to differentiate themselves and cull in more traffic. Almost forgotten at the bottom of the pack is Ask.com, who today launches multiple paned aggregated search results pages driven by “Morph” technology and dubbed “Ask 3D.”

With a market share less than half that of MSN and a quarter of that of Yahoo, it would seem Ask.com’s bold claim that they are “The only other search brand that’s anywhere on the map” would be a bit hard to back, but their new site is a radical departure from traditional search. Can a crazy new interface get people to rethink this forgotten company, and maybe search in general?

At first glance, the Ask search results screen is a little overwhelming, but it does have its charm — Video, Images, Wikipedia, Blog results, news and music (if relevant) are all aggregated on the screen to accompany the organic results, which are shoved underneath sponsored results (that look like… AdWords?). Visually, I think the additional results are more attractive and tend to be more relevant that what Google lists on the right column — that is, more ads. I’d prefer it if “Encylopedia” was just called “Wikipedia,” as there is definitely a difference between the two, but the extra additions do expand the breadth of information at your fingertips beyond the traditional hierarchy of top 10.

Of course, all these new doodads are essentially just eye-candy if the organic results are insufferable. Ask.com goes into great detail about how grand their algorithm is, and try as I might, I haven’t find any glaring flaws for a variety of search terms. For some search phrases I’m very familiar with, the results are very unexpected, with authority sites not listed or listed very poorly, which kind of puzzles me, but in general the results seem pretty accurate even for some obscure long-tail queries.

Despite my reservations about Ask.com’s business and marketing strategies — I think their “Algorithm” advertising is a little bogus, and they deserve some skepticism for their toolbar bundling practices — the new Ask 3D interface isn’t half bad, and I hope it furthers competition in the search industry for the better. Though Ask.com has no shortage of sponsored links, it looks considerably less ad-cluttered than Google and is visually pleasing where Google is spartan. Still, function is far more important than form in search, and the success of Ask’s new system will ultimately depend on the quality of its core search, and how it fares against the fiercely growing competition.