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Ask.com Brings New Dimension to Web Search

Internet search engine Ask.com has been chasing market leader Google Inc. for years without making much headway, but that hasn't deterred its engineers from trying to set the pace for innovation.

In its latest advance, Ask.com on Tuesday will introduce a more dynamic way of displaying search results. The Oakland-based company will sort its results into three vertical panels spread across the computer screen instead of piling 10 links in a static stack like most major search engines have been doing for the past decade.

The new approach, dubbed "Ask 3D," will be highlighted by a panel on the far right of the screen devoted to relevant photos and multimedia results, including video and music clips that can be played without leaving the page. In other instances, the third panel may feature weather reports or snippets from blogs and news sites.

The kinds of results displayed in the third panel will hinge on the type of the search request and the location of the computer used to enter the information.

For instance, a query about a presidential candidate Barack Obama is more likely to generate photos and news items in the third panel, while an inquiry about Gwen Stefani is more likely to feature music and video clips along with information about any upcoming shows in the area.

"In some ways, we are becoming a convergence engine," said Jim Lanzone, Ask's chief executive. "We want to bring you the right information from the right source at the right time."

To make its site more visually compelling, Ask.com also is creating a new feature that will enable visitors to wrap digital photos around the search box. Mountain View-based Google began allowing similar decorations, known as "skins," in late March.

Last month, Google also started to insert more video, photos and book references on its main results page in an effort to make its search engine more helpful.

But Ask.com's 3D concept represents a more radical shift, said veteran industry observer Danny Sullivan, who likened it to an attempt to create a new operating system for Internet search. "I like what I have seen so far, but this is still a big gamble," said Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Searchengineland.com.

It's the kind of risk that Ask.com feels comfortable taking because of its perpetual underdog role in Internet search, Lanzone said. "It gives us more of a license to experiment and, in this instance, the experiment yielded gold."

Ask.com has been digging for more market share since its $2.3 billion sale to e-commerce conglomerate InterActiveCorp two years ago. As part of that quest, Ask.com abandoned its familiar logo -- a prim butler named Jeeves -- and launched a marketing campaign to position itself as one of the leading innovators in search.

While Ask's ideas have been applauded by search connoisseurs such as Sullivan and even occasionally copied by Google and other search engines, it remains a distant fourth in the U.S. market with a 5.1 percent share in April, according to the latest data from comScore Media Metrix.

Google held a nearly 50 percent share followed by Yahoo Inc. at 26.8 percent and Microsoft Corp. at 10.3 percent, Media Metrix said.

Lanzone knows Ask.com is unlikely to break into the top three in Internet search any time soon. But he thinks the company can still shake things up by giving Web surfers more reasons to come to its site. Currently, Ask.com's users visit the site about three times per month -- a figure that Lanzone hopes to double with the latest changes.

"Internet search too often is like going to the library and having all books thrown on a desk so you have to do all the sorting," Lanzone said. "Ask 3D is trying to bring some order to those books so you can find the good stuff faster."

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