Internet search engine Ask.com has been chasing market leader Google Inc. for years without making much headway, but that hasn’t deterred its engineers from trying to set the pace for innovation. Now, the company is unveiling a notable change that could make it easier for students, researchers, and other web users to find what they’re looking for online.

In its latest advance, Ask.com on June 5 introduced a more dynamic way of displaying some, primarily consumer-oriented search results. For such searches, the Oakland-based company is sorting its results into three vertical panels spread across the computer screen, instead of piling 10 links in a static stack like most major search engines have been doing for the past decade.

The new approach, dubbed “Ask 3D,” will be highlighted by a panel on the far right of the screen devoted to relevant photos and multimedia results, including video and music clips that can be played without leaving the page. In other instances, the third panel might feature weather reports or snippets from blogs and news sites.

The kinds of results displayed in the third panel will hinge in part on the type of the search request and the location of the computer used to enter the information.

For instance, a query about presidential candidate Barack Obama is more likely to generate photos and news items in the third panel, while an inquiry about rocker Gwen Stefani is more likely to feature music and video clips, along with information about any upcoming shows in the area. Entries such as “school technology” or “reading instruction,” however, return merely a traditional list of links, neglecting both news and video results.

In spite of such limitations, the new approach is intended to take search in a new direction. “In some ways, we are becoming a convergence engine,” said Jim Lanzone, Ask’s chief executive. “We want to bring you the right information from the right source at the right time.”

To make its site more visually compelling, Ask.com also is creating a new feature that will enable visitors to wrap digital photos around the search box. Mountain View-based Google began allowing similar decorations, known as “skins,” in late March. Critics and some search aficionados question the utility of this feature, however, arguing that few search users actually employ such skins in the first place.

Last month, Google also started to insert more video, photos, and book references on its main results page in an effort to make its search engine more helpful. As an example, the results to the search request “I have a dream” now include an actual video showing Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 speech along with the usual assortment of web links.

The videos will be shown on Google’s results page only if they are contained in the company’s own database or the vast library of its YouTube subsidiary. A smaller thumbnail will direct traffic to videos hosted on other sites, such as Metacafe.com.

Other Google results now show photos or information from the more than 1 million books the company has copied during the past two years. In addition, more news stories and local information pertaining to search requests are now displayed on Google’s first results page–perhaps the most prized showcase on the web.

Google’s database has included photos, books, videos, and local information for several years, but fetching the content usually required searching through one of the customized channels featured in a row of links above the main query box.

By intermingling different types of web content on its main result page, Google is betting it can become even more useful to its millions of users and maintain the competitive advantage that has established the Mountain View, Calif.-based company as a cultural and financial phenomenon.

But Ask.com’s “3D” concept represents a more radical shift, said veteran industry observer Danny Sullivan, who likened it to an attempt to create a new operating system for internet search. “I like what I have seen so far, but this is still a big gamble,” said Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Searchengineland.com.

It’s the kind of risk that Ask.com feels comfortable taking because of its perpetual underdog role in internet search, CEO Lanzone said: “It gives us more of a license to experiment and, in this instance, the experiment yielded gold.”

Ask.com has been digging for more market share since its $2.3 billion sale to eCommerce conglomerate InterActiveCorp two years ago. As part of that quest, Ask.com abandoned its familiar logo–a prim butler named Jeeves–and launched a marketing campaign to position itself as one of the leading innovators in search.

Although Ask’s ideas have been applauded by search connoisseurs such as Sullivan and even occasionally copied by Google and other search engines, it remains a distant fourth in the U.S. market with a 5.1 percent share in April, according to recent data from comScore Media Metrix.

Google held a nearly 50 percent share, followed by Yahoo Inc. at 26.8 percent and Microsoft Corp. at 10.3 percent, Media Metrix said.

Lanzone knows Ask.com is unlikely to break into the top three in internet search any time soon. But he thinks the company can still shake things up by giving web surfers more reasons to come to its site. Currently, Ask.com’s users visit the site about three times per month–a figure that Lanzone hopes to double with the latest changes.

“Internet search too often is like going to the library and having all books thrown on a desk so you have to do all the sorting,” Lanzone said. “Ask 3D is trying to bring some order to those books, so you can find the good stuff faster.”

Links:

Ask.com

http://www.ask.com

Google Inc.

http://www.google.com