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Ask Jeeves Joins Product Search Fray

Following the lead of Google and Yahoo, Ask Jeeves has rolled out a product search tool, part of search engines' push to position themselves as the fulcrum of the Internet, providing the starting point to finding an array of information, not just Web pages.

E-commerce is of particular interest in this effort, possibly pitting Internet giants like eBay and Amazon against search stalwarts Google and Yahoo. According to Ask Jeeves market research, 41 percent of consumers use search engines to find products.

Ask Jeeves's new product search, dubbed “Smart Search for Products,” combines its Teoma algorithmic search technology with natural-language search and comparison listings from third-party shopping engine PriceGrabber.

A search on the Ask Jeeves site, Ask.com, for “digital camera” yields a red box with options narrowing it to different shopping categories, from “cameras” to “accessories,” plus paid listings from Google and non-commercial Web search results. A more specific search for “iPod” returns the three most popular products in the red box, and a specific product search yields the product itself with pricing information.

“We're really trying to be very intuitive and very simple,” said Cathie Smithers, senior product manager for Ask.com. “We're not throwing a million choices at you.”

Clicking through to a category brings the user to the PriceGrabber comparison-shopping engine, which boasts more than 3.5 million product listings. Merchants can pay to have their product listings included in the index, paying each time a consumer makes a purchase. Ask Jeeves splits the revenue generated from its product search with PriceGrabber. Search results are determined by relevance.

Unlike other search sites, Ask Jeeves has not separated product search from Web search, instead relying on clues from search queries to infer when a user is interested in e-commerce.

Google's nascent product search service, Froogle, is a separate site still in beta. Yahoo's search engine operates in its shopping section, though Yahoo searches give users a shortcut to its shopping section for queries like “digital camera.” The sites compete with other shopping-comparison sites such as PriceGrabber, Shopping.com and BizRate.

The product feature is one of the shortcuts that Ask Jeeves, Emeryville, CA, has rolled out in the past year. It hopes the shortcuts, which take users directly to information, let it differentiate itself from the giants of search. Ask Jeeves ranks a distant fifth among search engines, drawing about 2.3 percent of searches in August, according to data from comScore's qSearch service.

Tailoring search results to user needs is an important goal for Ask Jeeves and other search engines. Ask Jeeves has rolled out search shortcuts called Smart Answers. Here, a query such as “capital of Latvia” yields “Riga.”

Google and Yahoo also have such shortcuts for weather information and mathematical equations. At an @d:tech New York panel this week, Yahoo's search chief, Jeff Weiner, said personalization would be an overriding theme in the search world. Eventually, search engines will serve results to users based on an understanding of their intent.

“Between now and then, the risk you run of being too presumptuous is giving the wrong answer,” Weiner said.

For that reason, a “digital camera” search on Yahoo and Ask Jeeves includes options for comparing products as well as non-commercial information on digital photography.

This move by search engines to position themselves as vast information repositories spurred Amazon to spin off an e-commerce search subsidiary, A9. It also recently rolled out “Search Inside the Book,” which allows queries of millions of published works for specific phrases. Google is reportedly working on a similar function.

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