Walt Mossberg

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

Personal Technology

Ask.com Takes Lead In Designing Display Of Search Results

Google and other search companies have made major, continual advances under the hood in recent years, improving the way they gather information. But less progress has been made in the way these search results are presented to users.

Google has made the occasional minor tweak but until recently, its search-results pages looked a lot like they always have. Its upstart competitor, Ask.com, took greater strides last year with cool features such as previews of the pages it listed, lots of summary information at the top of the page and prominent suggestions for narrowing or broadening searches.

Now, Google and Ask each have rolled out new ways of presenting search results. Google’s approach, which it calls “universal search,” is a modest thing, a first step in what it says will be a long effort to break down barriers between different types of information a user may be seeking, such as Web links, images and news.

But Ask’s new system, called “Ask3D,” is a much bolder and better advance in unifying different kinds of results and presenting them in a more effective manner. It shows, once again, that Ask places a higher priority than its competitors do on making search results easy to navigate and use.

Both new systems are now the defaults on the search sites. You don’t have to do anything special to use them. Indeed, Google’s change is so subtle you may not even notice it for some searches.

Both of the new systems are designed to spare users the extra steps needed in the past to view different types of content related to the same search term. But Google combines these different types of content into one list. Ask puts them on one page in separate sections, which I find to be the superior approach, because each type of result is displayed more effectively; it’s easier to see at a glance what you have.

In the old systems, if you were searching for, say, “Red Sox,” you’d have to do separate searches for Web pages, news, images and so forth.

To make this simpler, Google’s universal search now groups these different kinds of results within its single, familiar main list of results. As I write this, a Google search for “Red Sox” includes not only Web links, but also an entry called “News Results for Red Sox” with the latest headlines about the team and a news photo. At the top of the page, under the Google logo, are the two most relevant search categories — in this case, Web and News — if you want to separate types of results.

A Google universal search for a prominent person might bring up images at the top — something Google has been doing for a while — but also a video, which can be played without leaving the search page, a very nice feature. To see an example, search on “I Have a Dream,” to view the famous Martin Luther King speech without leaving the page. At the bottom of the page is a list of related searches.

But Ask3D goes much further. Instead of sticking with a single list of search results that mixes various types of material, it now presents results in a page divided into three panels. The largest, middle panel still contains Web links (and a few ads). But it is no longer topped by the search box and links to other sections of the search engine. Instead, where possible, it is topped by a set of salient facts or direct links to salient facts.

The thinner left panel contains the search box and links to other sections of Ask, but mainly it displays suggestions for refining your search, or for making related searches.

A somewhat wider right panel contains search results that go beyond Web links, such as images, news headlines, encyclopedia articles, videos, weather information, local time and, where relevant, music clips you can play without leaving the page.

A search for “Red Sox” in the new Ask3D, for example, has a summary box at the top of the main panel with direct links to Scores, Schedule, Stats and more. In the right panel, there are general images, news photos, an encyclopedia article on the team, videos and headlines. As always, the left panel shows suggestions for how to narrow or broaden the search.

If you hover over the image thumbnails, they enlarge. If you hover over the video thumbnails, they play, albeit without sound. For each of the right-panel content categories, you can even launch a further search without leaving the page just by clicking on a magnifying-glass icon.

If you search Ask for “James Taylor,” you get a biography at the top and, at the right, playable clips from “Fire and Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Sweet Baby James.”

Ask also now gives you larger previews of the pages it lists, visible by just hovering over a binocular icon. And you can now get to the advanced search panel without leaving the page.

Google deserves credit for universal search, which I’m sure will get better. But Ask’s new design is much more compelling and well worth a try.