NEW YORK One thing is for sure: the butler is not making a comeback.
IAC-owned search engine Ask.com is shifting from positioning itself as a Google competitor to a niche player focused on a smaller subset of users that are seeking answers.
"We have a really active, loyal base of users that come to us for a certain type of search," said Nicholas Graham, an Ask representative. It is not jettisoning its search technology, Tecoma, in favor of licensing Google's, he said. He also downplayed initial reports that the site would focus on women.
The marketing of Ask is in flux. It is no longer working with MDC Partners' Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the ad agency it hired in September 2006. Graham and the shop confirmed they parted ways when Crispin's contract expired in December. Ask has yet to decide whether to conduct a review for a new agency. Prior to Crispin, Ask worked with Omnicom Group's TBWA\Chiat\Day in San Francisco.
Ask spent six weeks researching its place in the search market, which is dominated by Google. In addition to a female-skewing audience, the research found that its users tended to turn to it for finding specific answers in categories like health, reference and entertainment, according to Graham. About 65 percent of those users are women, the company found.
"It seems very smart to target them especially if the audience is core to Ask," said Greg Sterling, an analyst with Sterling Intelligence. "I wonder, though, if it doesn't represent some kind of retrenchment that will lead to a loss in share."
Graham said CEO Jim Safka, who replaced Jim Lanzone in January, was unavailable to discuss how the business shift will affect Ask's marketing strategy.
In a way, this marks a return to Ask's original brand premise as a place people could type questions. It moved away from that positioning after retiring its well-known mascot Jeeves in February 2006 and shortening its name to Ask.
A Crispin campaign launched last spring with the tagline, "The Algorithm." After a series of guerilla marketing efforts, the campaign broke TV work of a song-and-dance number celebrating the algorithm's power by showing how it could find results for obscure searches like "chicks with swords."
That push, Sterling said, was aimed squarely at the biggest players in search, trying to put the IAC engine on equal footing as a credible alternative to Google.
Graham shot down suggestions that Ask would retire its own search technology in favor of licensing Google's.
Ask altered its approach later in the summer with a series of demonstration ads following the July launch of Ask 3-D, a new way for showing different types of media in the search results page. The company ceased running TV spots in November.
Despite spending heavily on marketing, Ask was unable to make much of a dent in search market share. Ask ended the year with a 4.3 percent search marketing share, down a bit from the 4.6 percent it had at the start of the year.
Graham declined to comment on whether the company's ad campaigns were successful or not. One change not under consideration, he said: bringing back Jeeves.
"Jeeves is retired, happily so," he said. "He's on a Caribbean island. He's going to stay there."