The search engine Ask is about to submit an iPhone app to Apple designed for asking questions on the go. About a year ago, Ask returned to its roots as a place to ask and answer questions. Roughly 35 to 40 percent of all search queries typed into Ask are in the form of a question, versus maybe 6 to 9 percent for other search engines, according to Ask president Doug Leeds. Ask’s main search page centers around questions, and last July it launched a social Q&A feature that is still in private beta.
When the iPhone app launches in the next couple of weeks, anyone who downloads it will automatically be enrolled in Ask’s social Q&A beta. The app lets you ask questions either by typing them in or speaking them. It translates the voice to text and then tries to offer up the most likely answer right away, based on its index of more than 500 million question and answer pairs from sources across the Web, including other Q&A sites, FAQ pages, and more. Right below that best guess is an option to “Ask the Community.” Your question will then be routed to people in the beta who self-selected as being knowledgeable in related categories. (Before the end of the year, you will be able to ask your friends on social networks like Facebook and Twitter as well).
The Ask iPhone app, however, will become more interesting with its second release, which will include a feature called “Nearby Answers.” Based on your location, it will show you a list of places nearby. You can then select one of the places and ask a question about it. For instance, you can ask whether a restaurant is any good or how long the line is at the local movie theater. Your question will be routed to people nearby or people who have answered questions about those places in the past. You will also be able to see questions asked nearby, and adjust the distance from less than 1 mile to 50 miles using a slider. If you are a local know-it-all, that is a great feature. Places data is coming from CityGrid Media, which, like Ask.com, is owned by IAC.
Geo-targeted questions and answers could potentially be very powerful. The social Q&A space is extremely crowded right now with everyone from Yahoo Answers to and Aardvark (now part of Google) to startups like Quora. Adding a geo layer on top of Q&A could be a way for Ask to distinguish itself. We’ll ask Barry Diller (CEO of Ask’s parent company, IAC) about this when he comes to speak at Disrupt next week.