Can an internet search engine built in New Jersey hope to beat Google, the pride of Silicon Valley, at its own game?
Ask.com -- the search company known until earlier this year as Ask Jeeves -- is in the middle of one of the technology world's fiercest battles. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are in an arms race that is consuming billions of dollars of research and development spending and exercising some of the software industry's brightest minds.
How can an outsider with less than a six per cent market share in the US and UK, its two most established markets, hope to compete?
Just to get this far is something of an achievement. In spite of what Jim Lanzone, chief executive, calls "a history of over-promising and under-delivering", Ask Jeeves outlasted more highly regarded search companies that have fallen by the wayside, such as Alta Vista, Lycos and HotBot.
"We are like a cockroach for a long time, with a subpar product, we survived" he says. "We're still in the game." Having survived the bust, Ask.com was bought last year for $2.31m by InterActive Corp, the internet services and home shopping company run by Barry Diller.
The search engine faces challenges familiar to any company looking to take on far bigger and better established competitors. For Ask.com, though, these are made more acute by the technological demands of the field. Advanced search technology requires both brains and brawn: Google, for instance, can throw ranks of PhDs at the problem, along with massive computing power.
The answer, according to Ask.com, is to make a virtue of its size, its brand and its distinctive approach to technology. Even in a market where Google, Microsoft and Yahoo hog the headlines, there may be room for something different. Think of it like trying to create a new television network, says Mr Lanzone: the power of the three biggest US networks did not stop Fox or Warner Bros entering. the business. "It's not a question of being better -- it's just different," adds Rahul Lahiri, head of product management. "It. isn't a zero-sum game."
Of all of the points of differentiation, technology may be the most intriguing. It is one of the biggest paradoxes of the software and internet industries that cash is not guaranteed to buy, success, at least in new markets.
The giants of the business have billions of dollars to spend (Microsoft is set to invest more than $8bn in research and development this year) yet the most disruptive new ideas often come from outsiders, often backed by little more than gut feeling and a personal overdraft.
Ask Jeeves did not even start out as a technology company. The past underperformance to which Mr Lahzone refers was due to its use of human editors to post answers to the most common questions asked on the internet. In spite of promising instant answers to users' questions, it could not deal with the wide range of queries that came its way.
Yet the familiarity of its brand and the reputation, however unjustified, for answering natural language questions was enough to keep the company afloat. It was not until 2001 that it entered the search business directly, buying Teoma, a search engine with just seven employees. Based on a Pentagon-funded research project at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Teoma was the brainchild of Apostolos Gerasoulis, a Greek-born computer scientist.
With a different technological starting point, it is possible to create a differentiated search engine, says Mr Gerasoulis (see below). "You can't copy and win - you have to innovate."
Whatever its origins, however, doesn't Ask.com need to join the technological arms race if it' is to keep up in the search business? To ask such a question, according to Mr Gerasoulis, is to misunderstand the impact that original insights can have even in well-trawled areas of computer science. "Money can buy machines and bandwidth, but it can't buy art," he says.
The relatively small size of its engineering team -- Mr Lanzone puts it in the "low hundreds" -- based in New Jersey, far from the company's West Coast headquarters in Oakland, is also an important part of the -- culture that Ask says sets it apart from bigger rivals. It claims to have lost virtually none of its top talent to competitors in spite of the red-hot market for experts in the field.
"All of these artists, what they want is exposure," says Mr Gerasoulis. "The true artist doesn't want to be one out of a hundred." Being far from Silicon Valley also helps to nurture the sense of distinctiveness, he adds.
Ask.com has managed to produce a string of new features that have earned it good reviews in the search business and a growing audience. They include a different approach to "clustering", or grouping similar search results into sub-categories. Arranged down the right of the search results page, these clusters attract a 30 per cent "hit rate" from users, says Mr Lanzone.
Small previews of web pages included with the search results have also made it easier for users to decide which results to click on, greatly reducing the number of websites they visit before finding an answer, he adds.
In its attempt to out-Google Google by trying to build a search engine with a more useful user interface, Ask.com has the benefit of an understanding parent. InterActive Corp allowed the company recently to reduce the amount of advertising on each search page in order to improve the user experience. That switch led to a one-off hit to revenues of between a quarter and a third, says Mr Lanzone.
Even if it can produce a distinctly different product, however, Ask is about to face one of its biggest challenges. The giants of the business are now locked in a battle for distribution: Microsoft is about to integrate its search engine into the next versions of its desktop software, while Google has responded by seeking greater reach for its search results -- including a deal to load search software onto new Dell PCs.
Mr Lanzone's response: internet users will still be prepared to switch to find a search experience that suits them better. Like small players in all markets, however, he may soon find out just how hard it is to fight the distribution muscle of the big boys.