NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON ASK JEEVES - Ask Jeeves moves away from offering internet for dummies

The search engine's butler character is dropped from TV. Alasdair Reid asks why.

So farewell then, Jeeves. From the advertising campaign at least. The infinitely resourceful valet will remain a cartoon character presence on the Ask Jeeves search engine for the foreseeable future, of course, but we won't be treated to any more hammy gentleman's gentleman performances in TV ads. Sad obviously - but, in time, we'll probably get over it.

According to the client and its UK agency, TBWA/London, the PG Wodehouse character is no longer deemed representative of the range of services that the search engine now offers - an interesting analysis, say some observers, given that the Jeeves character always seemed an unlikely representative of anything to do with the web.

But one way or another, Ask Jeeves' decision to tweak its branding is another of those signals that suggests we've reached the end of an era.

It was an era in which some services thought there was a real need for "internet for dummies". Ask Jeeves, with its cartoon character cuddliness and its "don't be afraid to ask questions in normal English" approach, was certainly the internet for dummies.

There are historical reasons for this, of course - not least the fact that it was one of the few operators that managed to pull off a couple of those much-vaunted airtime-for-equity deals, the UK broadcasters in question being Carlton and Granada. Both broadcasters sold up long ago, obviously, but the outfit has continued to have a decent TV presence, bankrolled by its Nasdaq-listed parent.

Perhaps the company is ready to push on to the next level. And, who knows, even take the whole search-engine business with it. Because it's not hard to argue that the sector is performing well below its potential - notwithstanding the recent success of paid-for search operations such as Overture and Espotting.

Some numbers: 86 per cent of all internet sessions start with a visit to a search engine. Worldwide, there are upwards of 400 million searches made each day - and upwards of 20 million each day from UK computers.

Impressed? Search engines, far more than portals (although it's true that most portals include a search engine function), are the true traffic hubs of the web.

And yet, arguably, they remain poorly marketed or exploited. On the other hand, who needs marketing and advertising? The most famous search engine, Google, has had almost zero marketing backup. In fact, it easily outranks the previous benchmark, Hotmail, as the greatest-ever viral-marketing success story. And even more remarkably, the viral medium in this instance wasn't e-mail but word of mouth.

Google is perhaps an exception - its technology is vastly superior to anything else on the market. The others, such as Ask Jeeves, clearly have to try harder. But what about the commercial exploitation side of the equation? Historically, most established search engines have had ambiguous views about banner advertising, believing in their heart of hearts that it compromises their integrity - and though their attitudes to commercialism are clearly changing, they're still less than wholehearted about straight advertising.

This is a cause of some regret at agencies because banner performs well on search engines, where users are generally in a pretty focused frame of mind.

But in the past, most search engine revenue has come from piggybacking their services, such as portals, that are unashamedly commercial. Recently, however they've also been building income from sponsored and paid-for listings. And this is an important phenomenon from an advertiser point of view, not least because 48 per cent of searches go no further than the first page of results.

So it's worth paying to get on that first page. Or making sure you have the right tags on your site so that you get picked up by the "spider" software tools that search engines send out to trawl the web. Are advertisers up to speed on all of this? They're getting there, Howard Nead, the managing director of PHDiQ, says. He states: "Search engine optimisation is increasingly important. You have to make sure your site is set up to get picked up. And advertisers are also learning that users are becoming more sophisticated - you have to have a recognisable brand to make it worthwhile. More experienced users don't just click on the first search result they come to."

Clever advertisers are also using search-engine activity as a baro-meter of the success or otherwise of both on- and offline campaigns. As a successful campaign proceeds, you generally see an increase in search requests for your product.

The only problem is that clever advertisers are still in the minority here. So perhaps the biggest search-engine marketing challenge currently is not out there with the general user but within the advertising community itself.

There may be something in that. Tom Peacock, a managing partner of Outrider, comments: "From our perspective, if a client is looking to drive traffic to a website, search marketing is generally the most cost-effective solution. And it is now very accountable and measurable."

He suggests that business is taking off so rapidly that if a client isn't investing in search it will be losing out because its competitors almost certainly will be.

"It's surprising this area isn't more commercialised," he says. "It can be quite a technical part of the business and marketers shy away from it and sometimes don't understand the work that needs to be carried out to make the most of this area. And it certainly doesn't involve photo shoots in the Caribbean, so sometimes clients steer clear of it and give it a 'boring' label. It's a crying shame, really."