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Ask.com has recently unveiled AskX - a beta test of a new, Web 2.0 interface to Ask.
To use AskX, navigate to askx.com. This will redirect you to ask.com with a parameter of?ax=5. I suppose you could manually add that to the URL as well. After that, Ask remembers that you are using AskX (presumably in a cookie) so the next time you go to ask.com you will get the AskX inteface. This is convenient, say, if you are using a search toolbar.
I find the opening screen to be confusing and unnecessary. You get essentially a blank page with a search box, a spiffy new "AskX" logo with a nice, subtle reflection under it, and "Exit Ask X" at the upper-right corner. (Which is how you go back to the old UI if you wish.)
The reason it is confusing and unnecessary is that this is nothing like the full AskX UI that you get once you do a search. That is, the UI is different between your first and subsequent searches.
So, let's do a search. I choose "digital camera", the cannonocal search. ;)
Now you see the *real* AskX UI.
The first thing you will notice is the cool fade-in effect on the center panel, which holds the search results. I guess is their proof that this is Web 2.0. It gets less annoying over time - I'm actually starting to like it.
There's a sidebar to the left with a search box and the choice of "Web¦Images¦Video¦More" above it. Below the search box are "Narrow" and "Expand", each with up to 4 sets of search terms and possibly "More".
Click on a "more" on narrow or expand and you get a nice scroll-box with more choices. "More" above the search bar gets you additional choices of "News", "Blogs", "Shopping", and "Browse Features".
The narrow and expand are actually a feature in the regular ask.com UI. But I wasn't aware of them because I haven't (in the past) been a frequent ask.com user, and I think the position on the right-hand side of the page (in the standard UI) makes it less prominent.
To the right is another sidebar. This has a number of sections with related search results (not all will always be present): Images, Dictionary, Encyclopedia, News, Posts, Video Blogs, All Music Guide. Probably a few more I have missed. In most cases, the section has a "more" button for more results.
The Dictionary definition seems to come from a random selection of online dictionaries. The Encyclopedia entry always comes from Wikipedia. Posts lists recent blog posts.
Within each section in the right side-bar, there is a "search" button which is only visible when hovering in that section. This brings up a search box, which provides an alternative to the main search box, narrowed to that category.
Going back to the left sidebar, there's another feature I haven't talked about yet, and actually didn't notice for a while. Let's do another search. Because it is Christmas, I am going to search for "Santa Claus".
I type "Santa", I'm about to type "Claus", and... whoa! Something happened! I now see "Search" suggestions in the area which previous held the narrow and broaden choices.
Am I interested in santana, santa claus, santa fe, new mexico, or santa barbara? (There are additional choices.)
This is similar to Google Suggest, but seems to provide more relevant results. For example, "santa claus" is the second choice. On Google Suggest there is no "santa claus" choice, and "santa" (without the "claus") the the last choice in the list.
You may disagree if it is July and you are planning a trip to the California coast, but we will have to re-run the search then and see what happens. ;)
I'm going to go ahead and complete typing "santa claus". I could also just click on "santa claus" in the suggestion list, but I want to demonstrate that there are additional relevant suggestions. I now seem "santa clause" (the movie), "santa claus history", "santa claus pictures", etc.
As before, the search results fade-in to the center section, and there are a number of "narrow" and "expand" choices in the left sidebar. But now there's something else as well - Related Names. "Sant Nicholas, Rudoph, St. Nicholas, and... oops! Easter Bunny"
The search result section is a bit different in this case. There's what appears to be an encyclopedia entry right at the top of the search results. It turns out this time the entry is supplied by Who2, which I hadn't heard of before. There is also the usual Wikipedia entry in the right sidebar.
Below that are sponsored ads, and then the search results.
I have to say that perhaps they could do more careful filtering of ads: the first ad reads "Look Sexy this Winter". The advertiser offers "Elf & Santa Costumes... & Skimpy Bikinis." Imagine the fireside conversations: "Well, Billy, it's like this. Men sometimes have fantasies..."
Overall, I give the new AskX UI a 9 out of 10. It always provided speedy results, no problem with delays using the Web 2.0 features. The suggest, narrow, and expand are truly a huge improvement in usability over traditional search engines, and they've placed these features in a prominent position where they will get used. There are a few glitches and inconsistencies - for example, the completely useless opening page, the "Exit Ask X" moving from the upper right to the upper left when going from the opening page to the full UI.
It's good enough that I've installed the Ask search bar in Firefox and turned-off the third-party Google search bar extension I'd been using. Ask is now my primary search engine, and it's because of the features of AskX.
More spidering, more caching
I generally check my stats every day for all of my many sites to see which engines are sending traffic, and for what queries -- I do not exaggerate when I say that Ask is maybe 5 in a thousand. That's minor league, but I'd be thrilled to see them make the kind of investment it would take to become big league players -- more competition at the top is better for everyone.
So a cool interface is a nice touch, but it's cosmetic -- next get a bigger engine under the hood and we'll have something to be really excited about.