Walter Mossberg, influential WSJ columnist, prefers the redesigned Ask.com’s search experience to that of Google. Reasons: the search results are much the same, but the added extras are nicer and the preference is given to quality and presentation of real search results over ads, which are clearly differentiated.
If Ask can deliver a search experience as good as Google's, it seems possible that we are now approaching the commoditisation of search. How good do the basic search results need to be anyway before the marginal benefit to the end user of them getting any better isn't worth the investment at the provider's end? (Possible answer: when "better" isn't "better enough for anyone to switch".) If Walter Mossberg thinks Ask results are as good as Google's, what exactly did Google spend half a billion R&D dollars on last year? (Over at InternetStockBlog, David Wolf asks much the same question of Chinese search engine Alibaba - given the site looks and behaves no differently than before Alibaba spent $750m of Yahoo!'s $1 billion cheque...where did 750 million of Yahoo!'s dollars actually go? If either of these examples are typical, just keeping a search engine ticking along looks like a predictably but horribly expensive business.)
Ask is the smallest of the big five US search engines, but according to a recent analyst presentation (ppt) has grown its small market share by more than 10% YOY from 5.3% to 6%, a far better performance than the falls at MSN, AOL or especially Yahoo!. It was Yahoo! that announced in Jan06 a de facto withdrawal (Micropersuasion) from the race to deliver the best possible search experience, leaving Google in apparently unopposed ascendancy. In this context - and with the announcement yesterday that in 2005 the UK market for paid search grew by 79% - IAC focusing resources on the potential of Ask.com looks increasingly like a smart move.