and its Maps 2.0: A Delicate Balance

By Adena Schutzberg

_When separated itself from its butler Jeeves, most of us in the mapping world were only interested in one thing: the updated mapping tools. A quick look by many geo-geeks was enough to convince them that it didn't compare to other offerings and, at least now, had no application programming interface (API). That cursory look failed to put this offering in context. I spoke with Ryan Massie, senior product manager at, to get at some of that context. During our chat, one word came up time and again: balance.

The team at Ask, he explained, had to balance what it wanted to do in mapping with the rest of the effort to re-brand and re-launch the search engine. It also had to work within a larger framework; that of IAC/InterActiveCorp, its owner. That's important because IAC owns (ready?): The Home Shopping Network, Evite, Citysearch, Ticketmaster and So part of the vision was to create a platform that would integrate with these other offerings and update the existing end-user mapping tools. Or, as I put it to Massie, the team was "building a platform so it could build its own mashups."

That platform had to be balanced with user needs. Users wanted maps, and still do. Mapping related queries are top 10 searches on While Ask has had a mapping offering since June 2004, this update aimed to improve the experience for the user with draggable maps, multipoint directions, walking directions, and the ability to "right click" to locate a point to become part of a route. And, as Massie is quick to point out, the specific offerings were not a "me too" response to other online mapping offerings, but rather reflected what users wanted.

All the possible additions to the mapping platform also had to be balanced with "getting it done" for the re-launch of last month. That meant that some items had to be put on the "waiting list." These included both an API and a method for making the maps available on mobile devices. Massie was not ready to share dates for either at this point.

Two different tabs distinguish between driving and walking directions.

The main focus of the re-launch of was around "core search" and a new user interface. In a sense, the announcement drew a line between the "old days" of the butler Jeeves, who if you recall, was positioned to answer natural language questions ("How do you fly stunt kites?"), in addition to searching for keywords ("stunt kites"). That, back in 1996, was the big differentiator for Ask Jeeves. That capability is still there, but the focus 10 years later is on continuing to advance its algorithmic search technology (ExpertRank) and providing tools to help people get what they need faster. ExpertRank uses subject-specific popularity (organizing the Web into “topic” clusters and identifying the most authoritative sites within each particular cluster) to return relevant search results. That technology was added to after it acquired Teoma ("expert" in Gaelic) in 2001. As a result of the clustering ability of ExpertRank, is able to provide conceptually-related suggestions to narrow or expand a query, what the company calls "zoom related search."

Consider searching for Boston at Google Suggest (beta). You get Google's best guess at what you might be intending to type. The resulting search, a standard Google search, yields at the top a link to map, following by ranked links and to the right, ads.

The same query at also yields a link to a map at the top, followed by non-map links, but additionally gives tools to narrow the search to the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, the band “Boston,” Boston history, etc. Or, you can expand the search to New York or Chicago or Cape Cod or the Freedom Trail. Finally, you might check out some related names, like the Boston Globe or Paul Revere. In a sense, has a map of how topics are related that it shares with the searcher for each search.

Right clicking on the map at and choosing add location, will reverse geocode the point.

There's another key differentiator that Massie describes as "location-based search." Now, that term is widely used and has a muddled meaning, perhaps, in our space. At, the idea is that "location-based search" puts the user in charge of determining locations of interest. Nearly all other mapping websites (Live Local is one exception) insist on some text – an address, state, ZIP Code, to start. Without one of those, you can't begin to look for directions, for example. With you click on the point, the service displays the lat/long and then reverse geocodes it for use in routing. (Unfortunately, without an address, it seems impossible to get a route, even one that gets "close" to the un-geocodeable destination.)

As redefines its brand, it's also doing its part to redefine mapping services. It's staying out of the "me too market" and planning to make its own splash with new functionality for mapping, as well as local search, in the coming months.

Published Tuesday, March 21st, 2006

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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