Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bad Branding Killed Jeeves

Last week, Ask.com officially conceded that it could not beat Internet search behemoth Google, which currently controls about 65 percent of the market. Ask.com accounts for about 2 percent of the market. Barry Diller, the media mogul who purchased the search engine in 2005 for $1.85 billion said, “We’ve realized in the last few years that you cannot compete with Google.”

Unfortunately, that’s one very expensive branding lesson Diller received.

Originally known as Ask Jeeves, the Web engine operated under the catchy premise of having a personal butler fetch answers to all your questions. After the purchase, the new owners fired Jeeves and shifted their focus to algorithmic-powered Internet searches to complete with Google -- and did so at a time when it was achieving pop status as a verb for looking something up online.

Their announcement shouldn’t come as a surprise to well-schooled marketers because they know that when a single brand can get that kind of choke hold on a category, it’s no longer a fair fight. This is especially true if there is little differentiation, as most searches often return the exact same results as their competitors.

Now, the Ask.com brand is asking to be known as it once was, returning to its question-and-answer roots. This time, the human-assistance model is designed to simplify the steps needed to get the right result.

While this sounds great in theory, reality is a bit different. Scattered among the “relevant answers and links” were an equal number of irrelevant sponsored links, making the search more difficult.

Obviously, making search easier and getting paid would seem to be at odds.

Additionally, Ask.com’s rebound attempt will be more difficult than its 1990s ascent due to new and better-focused competition like ChaCha. By focusing on the text message function of mobile devices, ChaCha has created a real home for question and answer.

If Diller has any hope of doing the same, he may have to rehire his old friend Jeeves full-time.

This post also appeared on Talent Zoo's Beneath the Brand.

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