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Ask.com to focus on community answers

Using 'human search' to take on Google

Ask.com hopes to tap the knowledge of its end users to provide better answers for people who ask questions at its website, the company will announce today.

Ask.com was historically a site where users could submit search queries in the form of a question, and up to 40 percent of its searches are still conducted in that way, according to Tony Gentile, Ask.com's senior vice president of product management.

The company has amassed a database of 500 million question-and-answer pairings that cover about 60 percent of the queries submitted as questions. The challenge, Gentile said, is how to handle the remainder.

"Humans need to be involved in the process to get the other 40 percent," he said.

Another option would be semantic search, which tries to provide better answers by understanding the context for the question, but semantic search is still in development, he said. So a better option is turning to the wisdom of Ask.com's user base, he said.

"This trap that search finds itself in is understanding user questions in context," said Gentile. "You've got to tap into people. There are new questions every day."

With the updated service, questions that don't already have an answer will be sent to registered Ask.com users that the company considers "experts". They'll be identified based on information in their Ask.com profile, such as their location, favuorite bands and TV shows, and other interests. Ask.com will scan the information and try to match the question with the right users.

It will try to figure out over time who are the most helpful "experts" and direct more questions at them. It will pick them based on factors like the length of their answers, spelling, grammar, the quality of links they include and how often they respond, Gentile said.

Users will be asked to declare in their profiles that they want to become experts, and they can say how many questions they want to receive. If a question isn't answered within an hour, it will get thrown out to the broader community of Ask.com users.

Unanswered questions will remain posted for a week. Registered users are notified by e-mail when their question is answered, and they're sent to a page with the proposed answer along with the standard "blue links" they would usually get from their query.

"We'll evaluate on a day-to-day basis to see if people are getting quality answers," Gentile said. The company hopes people will take part in return for a greater sense of community.

People on the wait list will be invited to join over the next few weeks, and the idea is to eventually make the service available to all users.

See also: Ask.com: better results, smaller market share


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