In this issues column I thought that I’d take another in-depth look at a search engine to see what it can offer me and my subject, this issues victim is the Ask Jeeves search engine . I chose this engine because it’s one that I use occasionally and also one that is often overlooked by searchers.
Ask Jeeves is what I refer to as a ‘natural language’ search engine, in that it your questions can be posed in everyday language, such as ‘What is the tallest mountain in the world’ or ‘Tell me about the UK tax system’. The concept behind it is simply to explain and difficult to implement; it doesn’t just look for what you’ve asked for but instead attempts to understand what you actually want, and provide you with links not only to that specific information, but also to other supplementary sources of information in the same subject area. Consequently it can be very useful if you’re not quite sure of what you’re looking for, or need to be able to read around a subject area.
In this respect it’s quite different to free text search engines that will just look for web pages that contain the string(s) of characters that you’ve asked for, or index/directory based engines that prompt you by providing lists of different subject headings to chose from. To give you an example of a time when I found it useful was when I was asked for information on which gases are semi-soluble in water. Now, not having a chemistry background I was a little stumped by this question. I could have gone to one of the free text search engines and searched for something like ‘+gases +”partially soluble” +water’ but I suspected that I’d simply end up with hundreds, if not thousands of pages, and having no knowledge of the subject area I would have spent a long time picking pages almost at random in the hope of striking lucky. I therefore really didn’t think that would be an option, but then, neither were index/directory engines because once I’d got into the section on Chemistry I was pretty sure I wouldn’t find a sub heading on ‘gasses partially soluble in water’! At this point I remembered the existence of Ask Jeeves, so I paid it a visit, asked my question and within a few seconds I had the answer that I needed.
Consequently, if you don’t really know just what you want, or you need to read around a subject, it might be worth paying it a visit, so lets toddle along now and see what there is to be seen.
The search engine was first launched in April 1997 and has since added several other engines to its stable, including a UK version . Their blurb states “From the beginning, Ask Jeeves at Ask.com has allowed users the ease of interacting on the Web the same way they do offline. Users pose questions in plain English and receive links to Web sites containing relevant information, services and products. Ask Jeeves’ combination of natural language question answering, human editorial judgment and popularity technology gives users the benefit of millions of previous searches.” As of May 2000 the search engine serves 11 million people a month, handling more than 15 million queries a day.
Ask Jeeves employs a staff who are responsible for creating a proprietary knowledge base. They review web pages using their own criteria for inclusion based on such things as currency, reliability and content prior to including them in the database. Their automated search technology also analyses previous choices that users have made in order to suggest the most appropriate web pages. Ask Jeeves also periodically partners with other information providers in an attempt to provide even more appropriate content.
So, how is it used? It’s all really quite simple; just ask a question using natural language, without bothering to use any syntax or Boolean operators. Ask Jeeves will then attempt to break the question down into constituent elements and provide links to web pages that answer those questions. So for example I asked the question “I need to know about the tax revenue system in the UK” and was provided with the opportunity for seeing the answers to questions on economic information for the UK, with pull down menus so that I could choose instead to look at answers for a map of, communication system for, government information for a wide variety of different countries. Alternatively I could chose to see the answers to questions on tax preparation systems online, a guide to business taxes, downloading tax forms and so on. Ask Jeeves also provided me with access to MSN Money Central, 10 top websites that other users with similar questions found useful and a list of responses provided by two other search engines. Consequently I was able to locate 2 or 3 sites that gave me exactly the information that I required.
It does sound too easy to be believed and I’m afraid that to a certain extent it is. The answers provided do depend on exactly how you have asked your question in just the same way that other search engines do. If you ask the same question in a couple of different way you will find that you get entirely different results. I asked ‘Tell me about Phil Bradley’ and ‘I need information on Phil Bradley’ and was presented with entirely different sets of answers for what was essentially the same question. Answers to my first question were almost entirely irrelevant while answers to my second were much more on topic (and at least for me it was gratifying to see pages from my own website being delivered back in the answers). I therefore think that there is a slight danger to using the service; when constructing a search statement with a free text search engine it’s fair to say that we do (in general) think about exactly what terms are appropriate, which we wish to exclude and so on. It is therefore very easy to be quite precise about what information is required. However, when using general everyday language precision isn’t always at the top of the list and there is a danger that searchers will assume that as long as the keywords are contained in the question one set of answers will be pretty much the same as another set, but quite clearly this isn’t the case. There is a danger then that rather than slightly restate the question users will accept a less than accurate set of results simply because they don’t realise there is a difference between ‘Tell me about’ and ‘I need information on’.
Ask Jeeves also provides an index/directory approach by providing access to data via subject headings such as Business, News, Real Estate, Science, the World and so on. I didn’t find this as comprehensive as the headings provided by someone such as Yahoo! for example, although it should also be noted that although the number of sites listed was also much smaller (and not laid out as well) I found the descriptive summaries more helpful.
The search engine also provided a link to another facility which is not often seen, and that is the ability to post questions/provide answers in their ‘Ask other people’ section. It has a number of interesting features, such as (obviously) being able to ask/answer questions, but also to challenge an answer, refer the question to a friend, or to subscribe to the answers from individual ‘experts’. I checked the section on Searching the Internet, which had 490 questions that had been asked with 164 as yet unanswered. It was also possible to search the questions to see if someone else had asked the question you were going to ask.
As well as the Global (ie. American biased) version there is also a Spanish and Australian version and a UK version (as previously mentioned). It is worthwhile choosing the appropriate version of Ask Jeeves; if you use the .com version you will get an entirely different set of answers to the question ‘Tell me about the Civil War’ than you do if you use the UK version! (It’s also amusing to compare the questions asked, and the way that they are posed between versions!)
In summary I found the search engine quick and simple to use, and as long as I remembered to ask my question in the right way, the results were very useful. However, because of the difficulty in defining questions by simply using plain English, rather than the greater precision afforded by free text engines with their search syntax I suspect that I’ll continue to use it if all else fails, rather than making it my search engine of choice. That said, it’s certainly worth visiting Ask Jeeves; if you can’t think of a question to ask try ‘Am I in love’, ‘What is the meaning of life’ or ‘What shall I have for dinner tonight?’, as Ask Jeeves has answers to all those questions!
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Phil Bradley is an Independent Internet Consultant