All had been quiet on the Ansearch front as I awaited a response from Ansearch CEO Dean Jones, promised a hair under two weeks ago when I alluded to an earlier analysis/criticism I’d written when talking about the state of play with Australian search engines, specifically referring to the then-newcomer Ansearch.
Dean picked up my post via Technorati, a blog search engine that uses RPC update services to track what people are talking about in real-time. I was suitably impressed by this diligence and apparent desire to hear what the market has to say about their product: could this be the same company whose birth was so marred by a spat of cyber-squatting, in what Dean Jones was reported to have described as a fit of “youthful exuberance”?
Apparently so. Ansearch’s beginnings, though marred by dubious practices1, received praise from various quarters of the mainstream press — or, at least, those quarters not controlled by News Corp, whose domains had come under threat. However, the Internet community responded quietly, and those voices that were heard were mostly of disdain at Ansearch’s domain practices.
Strangely enough, my original post wasn’t about any of that. I hadn’t heard of Ansearch until I read an article on them in the SMH — an article which reads a little too much like a rehashed press release for my liking: the telltale sign is in the closing sentence “Ansearch is the search engine division of Optum Ltd.” — if it were filed in the Business section of their paper, I’d understand, but it wasn’t.
I wandered over to their site, played around for a bit, and decided their offering was mediocre. In hindsight, it probably didn’t help that I wasn’t shopping for anything in particular — according to a ZDNet article, “In the short term [Ansearch] is focusing very heavily on the commercial end of the market.” — but at that point in time, I also don’t think they’d tuned their listings particularly well, as a search for DashLite turned up my WordPress hack over commercial listings for the actual Dashlite brand I inadvertantly used.
I say “at that point in time”, because it appears to have substantially improved since, as per Jones’ claim: “Much has changed since your first article on us some 6 months ago.”
Much improved, it seems, on several fronts. Their core offering has shaped up nicely, and some facets of my initial complaints regarding accessibility have been met. Their ancillary product offerings seem to have developed nicely: Ansearch CEO Jones claims “Each of [our properties] goes through up to 7 stages ranging from an initial, simple SERP/Directory style page through to a more involved service, mini portal, search tool, etcetera.” He went on to say that these ancillary properties (such as http://www.picsearch.com.au/, http://www.videosearch.com.au/, http://www.thefreedictionary.com.au/ and http://www.messengers.com.au/ amongst several others) are currently being actively separated from the core Ansearch site (he described it as “quarantining”), and the exact direction of a number of these projects would become clear over the coming months, with the appointment of a full time manager of these online properties.
I’m a tad concerned about his description of their strategy with regard to these — he said this would become clear over the months to come, and I’m hanging off two words here: distributed portal. Whilst I can see this as being of value to users (especially for generic, non-brand-specific/legally dubious domains such as jokes.com.au and the ones listed above), it doesn’t seem to fit Ansearch’s core strength as I perceive it: as a commercial portal, and not as another Google. “We are not aiming to be another Google… we don’t have their budget and, to be frank, there are enough people trying to clone them: why build another?”
In fact, Jones suggested that Ansearch’s strengths lie in that it is not the ubiquitous search behemoth, and that its index is “something unique… something faster… [and] against the so called “arms race” of search (my SE has more links than yours etc…)”. I’d agree this is indeed a strength, and also a reason for them not to try and be a portal. Australia already has Yahoo! and NineMSN for domestic portals, and I’m struggling to see what Ansearch will do to differentiate themselves in this: but I’m happy to be surprised!
Ansearch apparently holds an index of only 500,000 websites considered by its metrics to be “most popular”. I argued that this was potentially a bad thing as relevant content might lie outside this realm: for example, this website performs well when people search for reviews of the HP 2610 or information about Apache on Ubuntu linux or ACT files from MP3 players that record audio, but isn’t included in Ansearch’s core index.
Which is perfectly valid, for a commercially-focussed site, I just think they could be missing out a little bit. They can leverage on my content for their advertising impressions and potential clickthroughs, because they have more valuable content showing up in their listing alongside advertised products. If someone reads my HP 2610 review after having found it in Ansearch, and decides they’d like to buy it and remembers having seen a “Buy HP printers!” ad on Ansearch, they’ll most likely click “back”. It’s abstract, behavioural stuff, but valuable nonetheless.
Whether it’s valuable enough for them to bother is another matter. “We spider our own content… something that over time will be done daily,” says Jones. “Having only 500,000 websites will allow us to index sites more often, and as is the case with the ‘site info’ pages, provide far more info on these pages.” Which is a value-add, and worth preserving. If that’s all resources permit, I think they’re doing the right thing as is. Jones openly admits Ansearch’s index of popularity “has a commercial flavour to it” — and rightly so. Given their much-touted gender and age demographic based search feature, this makes sense.
Their index of popularity seems to be fairly slow-moving. “Monthly we add around 20,000 sites… and take out 20,000.” I’d guess this would be the lowest 20,000 that gets shuffled, and this seems to make sense. One has to wonder whether all the higher-ranking pages can have substantially fresh content month after month, but presumably they do — it’s one of the things the SEO experts have always cried from rooftops.
It was interesting to hear Jones speaking about these people, too: amusing, even! Web developers the world over often join in speculation as to what exactly makes search engines tick, such that we can boost our clients (or employers) website’s performance. It seems the reverse is also true: search engines all over the world similarly speculate as to what those horrible developers are doing to screw with their indexes day in and day out!
I don’t say this in jest, and I believe they’re right to complain: “The larger SE’s are having a very tough time coming up with clever ways to index content to counter SEO… only to have SEO’rs quickly find ways around it. Cat and mouse…” I think “counter SEO” was a poor choice of words, given that relevant content should hopefully still be rewarded, but his point stands.
Just as interesting is Ansearch’s strategy to avoid falling prey to dodgy SEO tactics:
By only indexing the root page, we remove almost all SEO trickery. This works in 2 ways. Firstly, people rarely put spam on their home page — that is, doorway pages, link farms, etc. usually reside away from the main index… and, secondly, it deletes multiple results from the same website. It also stops the site owner/webmaster from saying they are relevant to 100 or 1000 keywords or phrases.
Kids, we just found a new argument against clients who love their splash pages!
Content rich front pages aren’t, however, an absolute solution (at least, not in Ansearch’s index). According to Jones, Ansearch’s policy of “ranking sites in true usage popularity, both on and offsite” is “SEO proof… or at the very least, extremely resistant.” I’d agree it’s a powerful metric, but my reservations above still stand.
One caveat of Ansearch’s algorithm that appears potentially exploitable is its failure to exclude content in thefrom indexing. I don't just speak of standard meta author/keywords data, but of something else.
As highlighted in the screenshot above (click for original page, link may expire), Ansearch’s listing is including content between <style> tags. This presents potential for SEO abuse2, as most browsers happily overlook errors in CSS — and <style> tags can be placed towards the top of a document: if we are to believe the SEO myths, increasing their relevance in engines. Of course, it’s entirely possible the content bears no weight at all — but the question of why it is stored in their index at all remains unanswered.
This is another reason to reward websites that use semantic markup properly, though at this stage that would exclude disproportionate amounts of the web, so I understand engines’ hesitance to embark on anything like this. It’s not something a lot of sites use”, says Jones, before continuing “but it will be used more and more in the future.” Well, so much of the web community hopes.
This formed part of Ansearch’s defense for not having embraced semantic markup from the outset. According to Jones, it’s built on a technology developed for a pre-April 2000 (dot com crash) search engine — so that partially excuses the markup at launch time. Jones’ first comment on their failure to use semantic markup was simply that “The majors [Google and Yahoo!] don’t use it” — something I’d dispute the validity of, as Ansearch isn’t a “major” player, and, as has been established, is chasing a fairly different market sector. Their core business is search, but it’s a different breed of search conducted in a different way: and semantic markup and accessibility is a different way. Encouragingly, Jones sees the potential for embracing semantic markup in the future on both technical and commercial grounds: “It makes sense to use it and as it does open us to a wider audience with various devices used to browse our site.”
He didn’t cite the “reduced bandwidth expenditure as a result of lightweight code” reason, presumably because their host, OzHosting/Destra charges only for the link, not for transfers over this, on their dedicated server range.
Irrespective of their reasons, the future of Ansearch in terms of markup is promising:
Our long term goal is to have Ansearch website designed without any tables and heavily styled using the CSS, which eventually will gives us more control on how we present our site to different media types.
Ansearch has gone through several minor enhancements over the past 6 months with the releases of versions 1 to 1.3. We are currently planning a major update for version 2.0 and the issues [of semantic markup and separation of presentation and content] will be addressed.
But as we know, markup isn’t everything: content is what
ranks well in search engines erm… content is what draws an audience. Ansearch’s exploration into the development of portal environments is something to be watched with interest over the coming months, as well as its other business aspects, including an advertising network known as Soush that remains slightly enigmatic, and the mysteriously named “Factory” division.
An announcement is expected to be filed with the ASX later this week outlining something of Ansearch’s future direction: At this stage, I’m inclined to believe that the future is a positive one, as Ansearch distances itself from its much-criticised practices at launch, to a diverse range of product offerings that uniquely fulfil the needs of Australian Internet users.
1 Justified with the catch-cry “MSN do it, so we can, too!” — to which the only sensible reply is, “yes, but MSN do it with Internet Explorer, and as soon as you go and write your own web browser, feel free to hijack as many unused pages as you want.“
2 I notified Ansearch of this shortly prior to publication in the hope that, if this is indeed an issue, it will be resolved before this post is noticed and widely acted upon. One hopes this potential problem disappears quickly.