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Ask.com embraces its inner Jeeves

Q&A butler reborn as web 'community'

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Ask.com has gone back to the future, unveiling a public beta version of a major redesign that returns the site to its days as a butler that answered your questions.

But this being the age of "social media," the IAC-owned company has added a new twist to its old question-and-answer setup. In addition to using automated algorithms to answer natural language questions, the new Ask.com will provide answers via a "community" of net users.

"[The beta] combines our proprietary answers technology (specifically tailored to extract questions and answers from the web) with the human insight of the thriving Ask.com community drawn from our 87 million monthly uniques," reads a company blog post.

At the moment, the community bit is invite-only – you can request an invitation here – but the automated answering system is live today. If you ask a question, the site returns an answer at the top of the search page - with no need to click through. The company says it has a database pairing 500 million questions and answers, calling this the world's largest index of its kind.

The invite-only community seems to work a bit like Aardvark, the "social search service" that Google acquired in February. You ask a question and it gets shuttled to someone who may know the answer. "Ask.com has the ability to route questions to relevant people based on interests and expertise," the company says. "This means only the right people will be asked to answer a specific question, reducing spam and question fatigue."

With Aardvark, when you register for the service, you enter several subject areas where you may be able answer questions, and these are used to route queries your way. Ask.com also says that responses from its community will be indexed for future use.

According to Ask.com, its redesign was a year in the making. The company began life in 1996 as Ask Jeeves, using a cartoon incarnation of P.G Wodehouse's famous butler as the face of a site that answered natural languages questions using a database built by human editors. But after the rise of Google, the company abandoned not only Jeeves but its Q&A model, switching to the sort of algorithmic search popularized by Mountain View.

Ask.com currently the fourth largest search engine in the US, behind Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft Bing. Its share tops out at 3.6 per cent, according to comScore. ®

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