Superbrands case studies: Ask Jeeves

Originally published in 'Consumer Superbrands Volume VI', 2004. The book reviews the UK's strongest consumer brands as judged by an independent judging panel.


Despite the dotcom crash that the traditional media reported at length a couple of years ago, the internet market has continued to grow at a relentless pace. In 2003 there were almost 25 million internet users in Britain, compared to just seven million in 1997 (Source: NOP World December 2003).

The online advertising market in Europe is set to grow at a rate of 12% over the next five years, according to Forrester Research, and in 2004 alone is expected to attract ad spend of US$8 billion (Source: US Bancorp Piper Jaffray Equity Research March 2003).

It comes as little surprise to learn that -- after email -- the second most popular use of the internet is search. Various studies have shown that approximately 84% of web users in the UK visit a search engine at least once a month, and the Internet Advertising Bureau estimates that 400-475 million searches are performed during that same time period. Advertisers have been quick to take note, and Forrester suggests that search marketing accounted for 27% of all digital marketing spend in 2003.

Ask Jeeves is one of the strongest brands on the web and has helped the industry itself, marketers, investors and the media to wake up to the massive potential of search. At the time of writing, Google was expected to go public with an estimated value of US$15 billion and US$25 billion. Yahoo! recently paid US$1.6 billion for the search engine Overture, while Microsoft is investing massive amounts in search technology research and development.

Ask Jeeves differentiates itself from the competition not only with clever branding and marketing, but also with what it delivers: the most relevant results for searches; editorially approved results developed by a team of editorial staff; clearly marked sponsored results; related search and web results provided by its proprietary search engine technology, Teoma.

This ranks a site based on the number of pages that reference it --

a method called Subject Specific Popularity. Combining these technologies and products with understanding of information needs, Ask Jeeves specialises in retrieving relevant content, rather than just a list of ten blue links to websites.

Ask Jeeves will continue to grow with the market and become easier and faster, and deliver more relevant results.


In 1996 a veteran software developer named David Warthen teamed up with Garret Gruener, a venture capitalist, to launch a new business in Berkley, California.

Warthen had created a "natural language technology" allowing web users to search the internet by typing a question in plain English.

In April 1997 his invention became Ask Jeeves, the first search engine to deliver a user-friendly way of mining information from the web.

The following year the company launched Ask Jeeves for Kids -- a fun and child-friendly version of the original, allowing children to use the same natural-language approach, but with added safety features.

Ask Jeeves grew quickly from a small enterprise into an international organisation. In February 2000 Ask Jeeves UK was launched - initially as a joint venture between Ask Jeeves International, Carlton Communications plc and Granada Media Group, but becoming wholly owned by Ask Jeeves Inc in February 2002.

In October 2001 Ask Jeeves Inc acquired Teoma, a powerful new index search technology. Not only does it find sites that are more relevant - it also identifies which of these is an authority on the subject.

In July 2003, Ask Jeeves UK introduced the new Results Page for easier navigation, based on extensive research into consumer search behaviours and needs. ABC Electronic regularly audits the site.

In March 2004, Ask Jeeves Inc signed a definitive agreement to acquire privately held Interactive Search Holdings, Inc -- an important step in Ask Jeeves' growth strategy.


Simply put, Ask Jeeves is a search engine that helps people find what they are looking for when they are searching for information on the web. It delivers relevant information in an easy-to-use form to consumers (as well as highly targeted advertising messages). The service is attractive because it recognises that people have varying search needs, and they like receiving information in different ways. Compared to other search engines, it provides an intuitive and easy to use search experience.

The ambition of Ask Jeeves is to become a global provider of information retrieval. It is already on its way, with services specifically for children and for users in the US.

The improved 'Results Page' launched by Ask Jeeves UK in 2003 produces even more relevant search results. Additional services included: 'Related Search', a tool allowing users to delve deeper into a topic with suggestions based on similar searches by Ask Jeeves users; 'Editorially Approved Results', responses to searches provided by Ask Jeeves' team of editors -- linking in one click to a relevant page; 'Picture Search', with the immediate presentation of pictures within the browser; discontinuing untargeted advertising; and the clear labelling of results with sources. The development underlined once again that the user is at the heart of the Ask Jeeves proposition.

Recent Developments

The latest product in the Ask Jeeves UK portfolio is Smart Search, launched early in 2004. This leverages Ask Jeeves' combination of natural language processing and Teoma search technologies to deliver selected contents or direct results for some of the most popular searches and subjects.

News and Weather form the backbone of this new service. Users can now search for news about a specific subject by adding the term 'news' to queries. Plus, in contrast to other search engines, www.ask.co.uk intuitively grasps when a certain query relates to news.

For example if a user types in 'Tony Blair', Ask Jeeves infers that the user is probably looking for topical news about the Prime Minister, and will respond with the latest headlines as well as the normal web results relating to Tony Blair.

As for the weather, Ask Jeeves UK users can now receive direct results to enquiries about the weather conditions in over 130,000 locations around the world. Available features include a seven-day forecast, monthly seasonal weather, sun and moon cycles, and surf conditions. Ask Jeeves will also answer specific questions such as: Is it raining in London?or What is the weather in Paris like in June?In addition, users now receive a direct result when searching for the time. A specific search for 'time in New York' returns the exact time in that city.

Initially launched with great success in the US, Smart Search was the result of extensive ongoing research into how consumers search and how they want to experience information on the web. Sometimes users need specific information fast - Smart Search is designed to respond to this need.


In its earlier marketing campaigns, Ask Jeeves quite naturally focused on its question and answer proposition and its brand spokesman, the avuncular butler. However, research into the search marketplace and the Ask Jeeves user base showed that this strategy was less relevant to users with an increasing level of online experience.

The next proposition was: Jeeves sorts you out, launched in March 2003. This was demonstrated by showing what happens when you don't Ask Jeeves. The 'Should've Asked Jeeves' campaign featured situations that had gone awry, and showed why the protagonists should have used the search engine to avoid disaster.

While the early campaign had focused on TV, the new strategy used a combination of media. The goal was to differentiate the company from other internet properties and to position Ask Jeeves as the best site for information retrieval. It was hoped that the campaign could not only maintain the already high awareness figure of 88% of the internet population, but also build on the 57% awareness among adults. It also wanted to communicate the brand values of 'easy to use' and 'good for specific things'.

Ask Jeeves ran two 20-second TV spots during April and May 2003, successfully raising brand awareness to 61%. Online advertising mirrored the TV work. Each click prompted an average of 8.5 searches - higher than any previous campaign.

Guerrilla activities included placing fake parking tickets on cars in London. When opened, the flyers read: 'Traffic wardens making you twitchy? Shop at home...Should've asked Jeeves'. Similarly, signs displayed in Oxford Street focused on shopping scenarios, such as: 'Heavy Bags? Shop at home...Should've asked Jeeves'. Finally, an old VW Beetle was driven around London making grinding noises and billowing smoke. A line on the side of the car read: 'Buying a used car?...Should've asked Jeeves'. The vehicle was also used for PR activity, visiting radio and TV stations. It is estimated that these activities reached over 650,000 people in London.

At the same time, Ask Jeeves representatives took part in regional radio interviews about the benefits of searching online. This activity reached over 1.7 million listeners. Finally, Ask Jeeves issued topical viral email images to a database of 4,000 people. The images reflected the brand's online sponsorship of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, and showed events unfolding before they were broadcast on TV.

The Daily Star newspaper twice covered PR activity featuring the line 'Should've asked Jeeves'. In addition, Jonathan Ross mentioned the campaign on his radio show, and it was covered by the BBC's South East Today news programme. It was also voted Strategy of the Week by Campaign magazine at the end of November 2003.

In total, the marketing push raised awareness of the brand attribute of 'easy to use' from 37% to 42% and 'good for specific things' from 11% to 17% (Source: RSL Capibus 2003). The second strand of the campaign began at the end of 2003 and introduced radio, outdoor and print advertising into the mix.

In 2004 Ask Jeeves advertising is evolving further to focus on the main goal of searching...finding. The new advertising appeals to peoples sense of humour, wit and delivers an appropriate level of intellect that makes the campaign engaging as well as informative, a new way of thinking about search engines.

The campaign shows Ask Jeeves facilitating a more efficient search process and focuses on cutting through the clutter and delivering the information that users request, one step quicker.

Brand Values

One of the reasons Ask Jeeves was able to establish itself so quickly as a successful brand was that the company and the site had a character and a personality that encapsulated the service. The brand values -- friendly, reliable, helpful and trustworthy -- are captured by the friendly butler quickly resonated with a wide-ranging audience. And while the brand is evolving, the warmth and humanity embodied by Jeeves remains at the core of the offering, to drive its growth.

The company's latest developments have added values such as smart, clever, intuitive and understanding. But it has retained ease of use as a watchword, while successfully communicating that this means clear and efficient, rather than simplistic. More than ever, the brand recognises that the internet audience is technically savvy and capable.

Things you didn't know

  • Harry Potter has been searched for more times than William Shakespeare on Ask Jeeves.

  • EastEnders is the most popularly searched soap on Ask Jeeves.

  • Four out of five regular internet users are aware of Ask Jeeves (Source: RSL Capibus December 2003).

  • Books are the most purchased items by Ask Jeeves users, followed by clothing and accessories, then tickets for musical and sporting events (Source: Forrester Research, Nov 03).

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