Summary:

Google (NSDQ: GOOG) users are young, “trendy” members of the “digerati”, and Ask.com should never have tried to lure them away, its European…

imageimageGoogle (NSDQ: GOOG) users are young, “trendy” members of the “digerati”, and Ask.com should never have tried to lure them away, its European chief (an ex Google exec) now admits. The search site formerly known as Jeeves commands only 2.2 percent of UK searches behind Google’s 76.9 percent, but Cesar Mascaraque says he’s confident a core demographic of 35-to-55-year-old, family-oriented searchers is sufficient to support the business. “I’ve got a segment of a market which is very big, very profitable and I know they love me,” said Catalan Mascaraque, who joined from being Google’s southern Europe head 12 months ago…

No need to compete: But how does that square with Ask.com’s 2007 guerrilla marketing effort, when London commuters were urged to “stop the online information monopoly” – a campaign aimed squarely at hooking Google users? “In hindsight, it may have been the wrong approach,” Mascaraque said. “Maybe trying to compete head-on with Google was not the best investment.” Ask.com’s UK PR director Nadia Kelly added: “It brought in the wrong people – trendy 20-year-olds who were never going to be our customer; we’re not going after the digerati, Google crowd.”

The pair admit the site wasn’t “up to scratch” at the time. Mascaraque: “When you bring this young, trendy, very experienced user that is used to instant results somewhere else and you make them wait 1.5 seconds, you’ve lost them.” But that was thennow, after relaunching in October following a year of technical fixes, search time has reduced to 500 milliseconds, results are more relevant and the interface cleaner, Mascaraque says – this time, a more confident Ask.com, which has seven offices in six European cities, is following its own path…

Upcoming plans: In the US, Ask.com is moving to create “super-verticals”, like a dedicated search engine for NASCAR. While Mascaraque wouldn’t be drawn, it seems clear the European team would seek similar brand partners. He also revealed UK local business directory Bview is amongst the info providers being partnered to strategically improve search results.

Is the economy hitting the business? “You know what’s been the worst? The exchange rate. My UK business is doing great, but I report in dollars. The macroeconomic aspects of the industry (broadband take-up, increased domestic leisure and bargain-hunting) work in our favour.” No layoffs/restructures coming, he said. Though parent IAC reported “significantly lower advertising” from Ask.com US despite increased overseas performance in Q3, Mascaraque wouldn’t give further details. He is, though, happy to have outsourced Ask.com’s contextual ad sales to Google: “Our key success factor is technology and marketing – selling the ads, in the value chain, is very very low.” Hypothetical question: could Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) buy Ask.com? “(Parent company IAC’s chairman) Mr Diller gave an answer that we are not looking for buyers.” But acquisitions could work the other way around: “Good opportunities could be grasped at a good price and IAC (NSDQ: IACI) is open to recommendations.”

If not digerati, who uses Ask.com anymore?: Mascaraque emphasises the family focus: “We over-index in things like health, education, parenting, finances; we under-index in leisure-type queries like celebrity, TV listings or movies.” For example, the lifestyle bent extends to offering “the largest recipe book in the world” by semantically crawling pages for ingredients.

The differences are also geographic, and play out within the New York-based company: “The US is more interested in entertainment. We have more of a female skew, we’re much more 50/50 here. Certainly the verticals here are different, more family-driven.” Ask.com UK even undid the cumbersome Ask3D graphical interface introduced by the US HQ two years ago. Mascaraque: “There are many synergies, there’s one search index – but there are some things that are more specific to the UK market. Our customer base in the UK love simple UIs, no bells and whistles, no fancy stuff. (Ask3D) had tons of stuff around the page – that was, for our customer, too complicated.” A simplified interface developed by Mascaraque’s team last summer was adopted by the mothership a month later, he says: ‘In that case, we actually drove the change, driven by a better understanding of our customer base.”

Jeeves’ legacy of loyalty?: IAC may have scrapped the English butler that was its hallmark for a decade, following its 2005 acquisition of the site – but the servant Jeeves remains a mascot of sorts: “Those legacy customers are still coming to us. Based on comScore (NSDQ: SCOR) data, we get three times more questions as a percentage of our queries than the competition. Jeeves is the legacy of the business; the semantic search aspect of our business is more important to us than it is to any other business; there’s still a great market around answering questions in a natural-language format.”

“(Unlike Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) or Microsoft), we don’t have the default homepage in every computer that is shipped. People that come to us want to come to us, they type the URL.” But those companies’ recent travails could leave a gap: “If they’re distracted with their corporate in and outs, they cannot focus on the business. It’s great for us that they are busy.”

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