SearchTHIS: IAC Acquires Ask Jeeves

We interrupt this week's scheduled broadcast of “For Whom the Search Bell Tolls” (see the end of last week's column) for a special report.

Interactive IAC/Interactive Corp. -- the brains behind such popular web properties as CitySearch and Ticketmaster -- has made its intention to buy the second-tier Ask Jeeves search engine known. By doing so, IAC may help the struggling butler move out of the “also ran” search category.

Consolidations along with mergers and acquisition activity have become the status quo for search, and search engine marketers are often left holding the preverbal bag as they try to navigate the newly formed space. Often, the changes happen so quickly it’s difficult to plan or predict the after effects. 

SearchThis to the rescue! Here’s an outline of share of search, courtesy of up-to-the-minute data points from Nielsen//NetRatings, Hitwise and yours truly: It's a cheat sheet on the who-owns-what in search and how the latest M & A activity might affect you.

Search Mindshare

Unfortunately for IAC, when you mention internet search to the bulk of U.S. audiences, they will immediately free-associate to that wacky and super fun search site with the multicolored logo. The Butler and his new IAC friends have a few hills to climb in the coming months to help make the world of search a better place for formal attire.

Among the data floating around in the post-merger atmosphere was the inevitable share of mind points from industry researchers. The chart below provides a visual wake up for the uphill battle to come. Clearly, as of January, 2005, “search” for most Americans still means Google.

Nielsen’s Ken Cassar, director of strategic analysis, had this to say about the acquisition. "The acquisition by InterActive Corp. was imperative for Ask Jeeves, which required a greater base of capital in order to continue to innovate on par with Yahoo!, Google and MSN.”

To date, the butler brand has managed to come up with many of the tools offered by big players like Yahoo! and Google. There’s the Ask Jeeves desktop search, news search, local search, and of course a powerful move to create a more natural language search activity in the ask a question model.

Google followed by Yahoo! and the ever-growing MSN search, make the Ask Jeeves butler look a bit pale and old. Viewing the same data points from another angle, the Ask Jeeves situation starts to look a bit better. If you combine all the new Ask Jeeves/IAC brethren (My Way Search, iWon, and My Search), then the properties start to appear a bit more lucrative. In effect, this acquisition would nudge AOL search out of the number five spot with 6 percent of search activity for this time period. 

 

Search Mindshare Redux

So maybe Ask Jeeves jumping into IAC won’t be so bad after all. Always on the cutting edge of online intelligence, Hitwise offered the following assessment of the acquisition, by sorting out the internal activity data points. I do so enjoy pie charts, particularly this one, which shows the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of the Ask Jeeves pie.

Ask Jeeves Kids is an interesting case study on audience segmentation that we really haven’t seen anywhere else. The Kids site offers direct links to research and all things of interest to younger audiences, without all of the adult content baggage elsewhere on the web.

The kids line extension strategy must be working. According to Hitwise, Ask.com visitors were more likely to fall within the age groups that are most likely to have children and teenagers at home: 35-44 and 45-54: 47 percent of Ask.com visitors fall within these age groups, compared to 42 percent of all internet visitors (over four weeks ending 3/12/05).

While the Ask.com domain is clearly shown as a leader in the grand scheme of search servitude, the collective audience power of the combined assets is once again realized. Of course, the not-even-marginal MaxOnline could use some work so they might benefit from the inevitable post acquisition activity.

Integration Intelligence

What does the future hold? IAC announced plans to leverage IAC's leading brands and search revenue models by vertically integrating IAC's transaction brands and offers into the Ask Jeeves properties last week. They also plan to make Ask Jeeves the leader in content and merchant information, along with beefing up local content.

Another note in the acquisition announcement (placing the Ask Jeeves search box on every IAC site, exposing 44 million unique users per month to the Ask Jeeves brand) may have sparked a cautionary word or two from analysts. Nielsen//NetRatings' Cassar said: "IAC's biggest challenge will be to balance its desire to promote its own properties with its desire to maximize search revenues; two goals which will, at times, be at odds with each other."

At odds? Possibly, although as Hitwise pointed out, after visiting Ask.com, visitors were more likely to visit shopping and classifieds sites (15 percent) than search engines (10 percent) --  a handy tendency to have if one owns a local or shopping area like IAC’s CitySearch or Gifts.Com. It appears that Ask Jeeves has a head start on reaching out to specialized verticals. Despite a few caution signals, the traffic control devices on the search superhighway are reading all clear for integration.

IAC is clearly one of the more diverse companies in the interactive fray. Many IAC firms exist independently. The actions of Ticketmaster do not necessarily affect that of Match.com. In short, some work together, some do not, but smart integration of shopping or local search and directive search along with content properties in a manner that does not represent a conflict of interest will be key to building a better machine.

Additional resources:

Search THIS: Integration Concentration

Search THIS: Channel Conflicts

IAC

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.

Meet Kevin Ryan at the Kelsey Group’s Drilling Down, The Online/Offline Opportunity April 18-20, 2005 and Ad:Tech San Francisco April 25-27, 2005.

 

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