The long-overshadowed company is hoping to finally outshine much-larger rivals Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. with a new service meant to become a one-stop destination for information about neighborhood events, movies, restaurants and other businesses. The service, dubbed "AskCity," is scheduled to debut Monday.
Providing a search channel that digs up phone numbers, addresses and businesses is not new. All the Internet's major search engines, including Ask, have been offering variations on that theme for two years or more.
But Oakland, California-based Ask believes it is breaking away from the pack with its City service. Executives say results will have more information in a single panel, including richer maps, more lists of nearby attractions and related businesses.
Most of Ask's database comes from Citysearch and five other Web sites owned by InterActiveCorp, an e-commerce conglomerate that bought Ask for $2.3 billion last year.
"It's still not an absolutely perfect poker hand, but this is a good first step toward fusion," Barry Diller, InterActiveCorp's chief executive officer, said in an interview.
The service also draws upon information from 20 Web sites outside the IAC family, including Fandango for buying movie tickets and OpenTable for making restaurant reservations.
"We are synthesizing the business content from multiple locations so you won't have to pogo-stick around the Web," said Jim Lanzone, who runs Ask for InterActiveCorp.
Ask also provides tools to mark up the maps appearing alongside the written information so a user might be able to pinpoint a designated meeting spot with a friend. Up to 10 maps can be saved at a time for future use.
Although an analyst said the upgraded service is at least as good as Yahoo's and better than Google's, it is unlikely to dethrone Ask's much larger rivals.
"It's a very strong product that immediately puts them in the top tier of local search information," said industry analyst Greg Sterling. "But this is not going to change the balance of power in the general search market."
Ask started two years before Google launched in 1998, but it has never been able to mount a serious challenge to the Internet search leader.
Google ended October with a 45 percent share of the U.S. search market, well ahead of Yahoo at 28 percent, Microsoft at 12 percent and Ask at 6 percent, according to comScore Media Metrix. While Google has added 6 percentage points to its market share over the past year, its closest competitors have slipped, according to Media Metrix.
Many e-commerce companies are jockeying to dominate the local search niche, which is increasingly lucrative. Small businesses are shifting advertising online, away from traditional outlets such as Yellow Pages and newspapers.
Combined, Yellow Page ads and classified ads in newspapers pull in more than $30 billion (euro22.65 billion) annually. Much of that money appears bound for the Internet, particularly as the search engines develop software that lets consumers surf the Web on mobile phones.
Google's market value of about $150 billion (euro113.3 billion) may indicate that investors already concluded the Web's overall search leader will devour the local market. But Diller is not ready to concede.
"Everyone is always asking me, 'How are you going to compete against Google and its thousands of Einstein-like engineers?"' Diller said. "All I can say is that when I look at our product and I look at theirs, ours is better."