Fortune Teller

Ask.com may not be a spring chicken in the online search and answers space, but the company is looking to reassert its relevance. The company took a big first step toward transforming its product and 16-year-old brand – it was acquired by IAC in 2005 – with the hire of Susan Morrow as its new VP of Product.

Morrow was most recently the Chief Product Officer at Reading Rainbow, and before that was the VP of Content at LeapFrog, the VP of Product at Blurb, and the VP of Product Strategy at Macromedia. With 20 years in product leadership for digital content brands, Susan has the perspective and credibility to execute Ask’s transition from a search product to a content-driven Q&A portal.

“Susan has digital content in her DNA,” says Ask.com CEO Doug Leeds.

Ask, which was originally known as AskJeeves, remains the No. 4 search engine behind Google, Yahoo, and Bing. The hard part for Ask has been settling on what it offers to consumers that is different from the competitors that have long since won the search market. A big part of the answer, Morrow says without a hint of irony, comes down to questions.

Forty percent of all search queries submitted to traditional search engines are written in the form of questions, she says. Ask aims to be the top result in as many cases as possible and offer direct answers by way of its original content. The company then sells advertising against this content. In other words, Ask is fine with people using Google for search, so long as its own content is what comes up in the results.

“Ask has 80 percent brand awareness in the market,” Morrow says, explaining her decision to join the company. “I was surprised and impressed by this number and then to learn how financially strong the business was.”

In August of last year, Ask acquired About.com from the New York Times Company for $300 million. As one of the largest creators of original content online with more than 3 million “expert articles,” About fits directly into Ask’s strategy of delivering rich content against traditional search queries. The company also acquired content marketing widget startup nRelate in July. A big part of Morrow’s challenge will be integrating these two still new products with the existing Ask brand, its core Web product, and its Q&A mobile app.

Ask is not the only one one competing in this space. Ehow, which is owned by Demand Media, Expert Village, and other content specific sites focusing on cooking, automotives, electronics, etc. are vying for market share.

When I asked what her biggest priority was, Morrow hedged saying that she’s only been with the company for two weeks and is still assessing the company’s strengths and weaknesses. Pushing her for an answer, she said, “Ask has amazing content and technology, and strong traffic. My focus will be on using these pieces to deliver the best Q&A across multiple platforms. One of the things that I think we do better than anyone else, and that we can really build on, is anticipating the user’s next question and delivering a contextually aware experience before they even have to ask.”

[Image credit: Farm5, Flickr]