Ask Makes a Big Big Circle

Oh, Ask, formerly Ask Jeeves, formerly “Of course it makes perfect sense to advertise a search engine by sticking labels on apples” — what a long, strange trip it’s been.

(Actually you can’t blame Ask TOO much for the advertising-by-fruit strategy: it was, after all, 1999.)

Long ago, Ask got its start as a natural language search engine. That meant that you could type in a question and Ask would answer it, if the question was in its database. Then Ask got into being a more standard search engine, and was doing some innovative stuff for a while after its purchase of Teoma in 2001. Now its made a full circle with an announcement last month about its AnswerFarm technology.

AnswerFarm allows Ask to crawl the Web and pull question/answer pairs from all kinds of courses. Now their database has more than 300 million question/answer pairs. I’m not sure if this would be a natural language search engine, but Ask has certainly circled back to being a question-answering engine.

You can ask Ask some questions at Ask handled my standard (Why is the sky blue?) and not-so-standard (How many gills are in a pint?) questions with insouciance; however it gave me several different answers to one question (How do I make cucumbers in vinegar?) and confessed complete ignorance to other (How do I get cat hair off my shirt?)

When Ask CAN handle the question, you’ll see them listed at the top of the page, with a page summary that includes the answer and a link to the page itself. If there are more answers you can get a link to an entire page of them. In the case of ambiguous questions (“What is 42?”) you can get wide-ranging answers (See for more details.)

When Ask CAN’T handle the question, you’ll get suggestions for other questions — if Ask can suggest any — and aside from that you’ll get the option to search the Web, images, or news for your question.

It’s been many years since I’ve used it, of course, but this doesn’t feel like Ask’s old natural language technology, in either presentation or execution. The answers being included in a page snippet in the search result makes this a good resource for quick-hit questions that can be answered in a paragraph. And if the site has gone from 100 million question/answer pairs to over 300 million in a few months, I’d really like to see what this resource looks like in a year.

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