Have you ever used Ask.com?
Probably not, if the industry numbers are anywhere near correct. But you might think about trying -- especially after its announcement this week.
Believe me, I'm not shilling for Ask.com. On the contrary: during the month I recently spent in London I was forced to watch endless runs of Ask's faux-amateur commercials on the BBC -- an experience that made me want to rip my eyeballs out, right after I burned down the offices of Ask's advertising agency.
I remember watching the ads with another Silicon Valley veteran, who shook his head and said, "Why would a company willing to spend millions to take on a juggernaut like Google do so with these unbelievably lame and degrading ads?"
Good question. But now, after I'd long since written Ask off as yet one more failure (actually a double failure, considering its first incarnation as AskJeeves) in the search engine wars, suddenly the company makes a move of astonishing brilliance: this week it announced a new service called AskEraser, that would allow users to erase any trace of their searches.
It goes without saying that this is absolutely counter to the general trend of the Internet world. Indeed, the whole strategy of Web 2.0 is to gather as much information as you can about your users/members, both to customize and improve your offering, and, more important, in hopes of monetizing those assets, mostly by selling them to advertisers. This strategy is a natural development in the evolution of the Web, but it has also created an angry backlash that grows bigger by the day.
Better Commerce, or Personal Invasion?
Every week there seems to be yet one more scandal involving the big Web companies intruding too far into people's personal lives and private information, conducting what they believe to be acceptable business practices, but which are seen by many users as a violation of a perceived social contract that exists in cyberspace.
Just consider: Yahoo helping the Chinese government arrest a dissident, Google's permanent recording of all searches, the record industry's assault on downloaders, Facebook's possibly criminal sharing of customer purchase information via Beacon, and the widespread usage of "behavioral targeting" based upon customer search queries, page views and purchases. Together, they suggest a new Web reality in which the moment you sign on you are pounced upon by a host of giant companies, which then follow your every move until the moment you sign off … or after.
Web corporations inevitably justify this by saying they are doing it for our own good. After all, isn't it better to sign on Amazon and see a list of interesting new books, chosen based upon your last few purchases? And isn't it a good thing when you're conducting a Google search to have relevant retailers listed right at the top of the page, rather than forcing you to slog through several hundred superfluous entries?
Of course it is, and I'd be a hypocrite to say that I don't regularly take advantage of both of these services. But it is also disquieting -- and it grows more so when it seems like every Web-centric company in sight is jumping on to the behavior-targeting bandwagon. Is this really what we all had in mind for the Internet?
Ask Offers Remedy
Now, along comes little Ask.com, with its AskEraser function almost perfectly timed with the changing Zeitgeist, just before Christmas and just after Facebook had to surrender to the "Opt In" lobby.
The announcement earned a little press coverage, most of it mixed. The New York Times, for example, gave AskEraser a fair amount of ink, describing it as real break from the ferocious, and almost invisible, data gathering going at bigger competitors like Google. But then the Times airily dismissed the news with a wave of its hand, suggesting that Ask was such a minor player in the search field -- it doesn't even have its own advertising system, the Times noted as an aside -- that the news was of minor interest to anyone.
I disagree, in part because I've spent my career following little companies that managed to spot a turn in the culture, or an unnoticed structural flaw in a maturing industry, and then use it run down the well-entrenched, seemingly invulnerable giants.
As I've written in the past, I was inside eBay during its earliest days. When Pierre and Jeff first explained the company's business model, I must confess that what I saw as a crucial failing -- eBay choosing not to hold the money like a traditional auction house, but merely act as a platform for the transaction -- turned out to be the key to eBay's success.
I didn't make the same mistake when, in the early days of Google, Eric Schmidt explained to me the key difference between the Google search engine and all of its competitors: that it would not only be a free service, but that the weighting of the search results would not be influenced by advertisers. I knew that strategy would work because of my own frustrations with the then-current crop of search engines.
Little companies with the right idea, especially ones that tap into a vast reservoir of consumer unhappiness, can sometimes take down even the big boys. Right now, Google is the biggest, baddest company on the block. It looks unstoppable. But that's what they used to say about Microsoft. And anyone who has spent any time around Google lately has come away with the sense that there are all sorts of huge internal problems building in that company that could bubble to the surface at any moment.
Will Ask.com be the David to Google's Goliath? It's hard to say yet. It certainly won't if the company keeps producing those moronic commercials. But it is on to something. Has Ask.com found the soft, undefended, underbelly of Google that competitors have been searching for years to find? Privacy may be the new competitive arena, and 'Opt In' its most lethal weapon. We the people want the Web back -- and in the next few years we're going to fight to get it.
This work is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News. Facebook and ABC are partners in a political content application.
Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the bestselling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNEWS.com Silicon Insider columnist since 2000.