Jeeves serves up Microsoft

The butler is about to get even friendlier. Ask Jeeves is preparing enhancements to its question-and-answer site and is now proudly serving one of the largest estates around - Microsoft.

The butler is about to get even friendlier. Ask Jeeves is preparing enhancements to its question-and-answer site and is now proudly serving one of the largest estates around - Microsoft.

The software giant is the latest company to strike a deal with Ask Jeeves to use its natural language search technology for a help-desk Web site. Under the "seven-figure" contract, Ask Jeeves is building and maintaining the so-called knowledge base of information on Microsoft's products, said Rob Wrubel, CEO of Ask Jeeves.

Although Ask Jeeves has made headway providing corporate services to IT firms like Dell Computer, Compaq, Toshiba and Micron Electronics, and has begun branching out with deals with E-Trade, Datek Online and Office Depot, the company would still like to try to create a strong brand name with consumers.

After an impressive IPO in July that raised about $US45 million, Ask Jeeves executives are hoping a large marketing push will bring it real Web fame. Ask Jeeves has struggled for widespread adoption in a market dominated by more-established search engines like Yahoo and Excite since it dropped onto the scene in 1997 with its Ask.com site. The site gets only 4 million unique visitors per month compared to 23 million at Yahoo, 15 million at Lycos, 14.5 million at Excite and 9 million at AltaVista, according to Media Metrix.

Ask Jeeves has begun a $20 million marketing campaign that will seed its ads on TV, radio, newspapers, and of course, the Internet. The Ask Jeeves character will have a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, and actors dressed up like the butler have been deployed on San Francisco streets. The company envisions other marketing ploys, particularly targeted at children, such as a game show, trading cards and toys. "We want to make Jeeves a part of American culture," said Ted Briscoe, executive VP of Consumer Question Answering Service. "Our focus will be on making Jeeves a pop icon."

But marketing may not be enough. As other search engines added content, e-mail and other capabilities, Ask Jeeves may have to expand itself to survive. The company wants to enable e-commerce via partnerships with retailers and other providers. Through a deal with MySimon, Ask Jeeves will offer a shopping comparison engine similar to those used by Excite and Inktomi. In addition, Ask Jeeves will have a community discussion area where users can swap information on specific topics; a section where content partners can offer information; and a remote expert service where an outside researcher will provide answers to questions that didn't get a decent response from Ask Jeeves.

Ask Jeeves is also pushing its natural language capabilities a step further on its retail partners' sites to help them to drive sales more quickly. Its new Shopping Advisor service will prompt customers with questions to help them find a specific product. For instance, a customer looking for a camera would be asked questions such as whether it is for use in the day or night, for action or still shots, and so on until a camera meeting the criteria would be suggested. The software can be set so the Jeeves character is animated and responds not just in text but with a voice.

Other directories and search sites have also pushed into e-commerce to differentiate their services in the face of comparable search capabilities. However, Ask Jeeves may be more on target with its plans for corporate help desks, an area that is a natural for the company's question-and-answer technology and one that will only continue to grow as companies look for ways to cut customer-support costs. In the end, helping customers may prove to be a more defensible niche than the mass-market pop-icon business.

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