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Since revolutionizing Web search in the late 1990s, Google (GOOG) has greatly improved the quality of its results and, especially, its ability to make money from the context-sensitive ads it serves up alongside. But the appearance of Google search pages has barely changed. And search results from Microsoft (MSFT) and Yahoo! (YHOO) look pretty much the same in content and form.
Ask.com, a perennial also-ran in the search business, is taking a new tack. It doesn't really have more relevant search results; the variability is so great that it's impossible to say whether one search engine consistently performs better than another. What Ask tries to do instead is to present its findings in a more useful way. And to a great extent it succeeds.
Instead of following the Google minimalist approach, where search results fill most of the page while a smattering of text ads runs down the right-hand side, Ask divides the page into three columns. The middle one, which takes about half of the page's total width, contains the expected search results with three or so "sponsored links" at the top. There are a couple of improvements in this middle panel. Where appropriate, the first result is something straightforward and factual: a biography or a definition. And there's a little binoculars icon to the left of many of the listings. Move the cursor over it and you see a thumbnail image of the page the link takes you to, which may spare you from clicking on links that won't get you where you want to go.
THE RIGHT-HAND COLUMN OFFERS two sets of suggestions that can make a difference: "Narrow your search" and "Expand your search." Say you have typed in "California vacation," which yields more than 13 million results. The narrowing option includes suggestions such as "California vacation packages" and "Romantic vacation packages," and if you click on either one, you get progressively more focused results. The process doesn't work indefinitely. The top narrowing option on the "Romantic vacation" page was "Romantic vacation packages in New Hampshire"—a perfectly nice state, but this in no way refines my California results. And the search hits themselves sometimes remind you that machines still don't understand human language well. For example, a search for "Steve Jobs" then "Steve Jobs family" found "Steve Jobs calls family of stabbing victim."
Expanding searches is even less satisfactory. A search for "Palm Springs vacations" could, plausibly, suggest options in neighboring Palm Desert or Indian Wells, but instead you get offers of vacations in California, Mexico, or Florida. And returning to "Steve Jobs," an expanded search yielded: "Who discovered nylon."
The third column, down the right-hand side of the page, contains an assortment of useful information related to the subject of the search. For example, a search on a person's name will yield a collection of pictures, a biographical entry from Wikipedia, and a selection of relevant blogs or news items. A search related to a place will lead to pictures, a map, news stories, and Wikipedia.
If you have any of five different Sprint wireless handsets, you can take advantage of another Ask.com service, Ask Mobile GPS. It combines precise location-based search with turn-by-turn navigation, both using the global positioning system data generated by the phone. The service costs $10 a month after a two-week free trial.
Ask has no illusions about unseating Google as the search champ. But search advertising is so lucrative that executives say the investment in the new design will pay off if they can get existing customers to just Ask a bit more often. Regular users of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo should give it a try.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/
By Stephen H. Wildstrom