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Ask Jeanette?

The news from the butler's former home seems grim. Ask.com recently announced layoffs of 8% of its workforce and a new focus on its core audience: married women. The response from the blogosphere? Danny Sullivan wrote their obituary. Not good.

While I, like most people, am a regular non-user of Ask, it doesn't mean the company doesn't bring back some fond memories for me. I actually remember first hearing about Ask Jeeves from the razor ads in the 90's that featured the company. To be honest, I don't remember the name of the razor company that the ad's were promoting - presumably schick or gillette - but I do remember Ask Jeezes and their employees being featured in them.

Anyway, fast forward to 2004 and Ask.com was the first news feed deal I did at Topix. It was a tough sell as Moreover was supplying them their news feeds, but we managed to get them to use our local feeds. Cash wise it was pretty much a non-event for Topix, but from a PR perspective it was a big win. Likewise, it changed the perception of the company. While at the time we were still 6 guys working out of a trophy store in Palo Alto, but that was only for us to know. After the Ask deal, the market saw us a player. Big win.

Over the years we had many chance to meet and talk with the Ask.com folks. Jim Lanzone, Ryan Massie, Gary Price all good, smart guys. When Jim left, I knew something was up though. Despite maintaining (its albeit small) market share over the years, being the only search company out there who actually tries to differentiate and being part of a company that actually makes its money online, the blogosphere is now burying them. Kind of weird.

Before we shovel the last pile of dirt on their grave though, let's just take a look at their idea to focus the site on their core audience of married women. Danny shrugs it off, saying the market has never shown that there needs to be a women's search engine. For women, by women, about women - if you will. He is right, their is no indication women need a different product.

But, want and need and different things. Is it really such a crazy idea to segment a market by demographic. Car companies all have the same essential product - four tires, and engine and a steering wheel - yet they create market segments for themselves. That's what marketing is really all about - segmenting, differentiating branding.

So you can do that for things like cars, movies, music, etc. but not a search engine? I don't buy it. There's really only one "right" answer to a query like "home improvement"? My wife and I beg to differ. We really expect/ want different results.

I wrote an entry a while ago where I pondered the idea of search companies being designed for certain segments. Seems like Ask is going down this road. I'm not sure its such a bad strategy.

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Comments (2)

David:

I never thought their search was that much different anyway. In the end, I think married women will like the bells and whistles on Yahoo and Google more than Ask. Unless they undergo a massive change that caters to that crowd, it will be tough to make any noticeable change in their market share. Honestly, I never understood what Barry Diller saw in that deal. Awful pricey for a 2005 deal. Sounds more like a 1997/1998 deal.

Ask Nomore:

I dont know if those guys are "smart"?!

Spending $50M and not moving ANY market share?!

Having offices in 7 locations and numerous "home offices of 1 person"?! Even Google doesn't allow more than 3 locations for a project.

Turnover rate second only to the customer support industry?

And what real experience in management did those guys have? They learned at the expense of the Ask brand.

In the end above and beyond the layoffs, they lost probably another 5% in voluntary attrition.

Good luck with that housewifes/marge simpson/whatever strategy in any case.

Oh and you do realize their crawling sucks? Do this: "ask.com" as a search on their blog search. half the crap is porn. nice going.

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