Forget the butler. Ask.com is playing concierge.
The search engine, previously known as Ask Jeeves, today is launching a service to connect Web surfers with local business listings, movie times, events and digital maps.
What separates AskCity from rival local search engines, analysts say, is the depth of information it's able to draw on from its corporate parent, IAC/InterActiveCorp.
The service is stocked with data from other IAC properties: restaurant reviews from Citysearch, concert listings from Ticketmaster and TicketWeb, contractor appointments from ServiceMagic, even campground reservations from ReserveAmerica.
"Search is evolving from something that helps you find links to something that helps you get things done online faster," said Ask CEO Jim Lanzone.
For instance, Ask users can plan an outing without leaving the site: reserve a table at a restaurant, buy tickets for a jazz club, find a hip bar to go to afterward and print driving directions to get from place to place.
Barry Diller, IAC's chairman and chief executive, thinks of Ask as "the connecting thread" among the company's specialized businesses, letting users search all of them through one interface.
"It's beginning to emerge as the unifying place for all of our vertical searches," Diller said.
IAC operates as what he calls an "integrated conglomerate" of media and commerce properties, including Home Shopping Network, LendingTree and Match.com. But its websites have mostly operated as separate entities.
That began to change when IAC acquired Ask Jeeves, named after the butler in P.G. Wodehouse stories, in July 2005. The property sold for $1.85 billion.
Fielding 5.8% of the search queries conducted in October in the United States, according to ComScore Networks, Ask lags far behind Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. in market share. But it has gained ground on another Internet giant, Microsoft Corp., and pulled ahead of Time Warner Inc.'s AOL.
Oakland-based Ask is "clearly not a Yahoo or a Google, but they're a very credible and important second source for a lot of consumers," said James Lamberti, senior vice president of ComScore Marketing Solutions.
The search engine has helped IAC's financial performance. Revenue in IAC's media and advertising businesses, which include Ask, Citysearch and Evite, grew 62% in the third quarter over the same period last year. IAC shares are up 27% this year, after closing at $35.94 on Friday.
For now, Ask's main strategy is to gain market share by persuading its current users to do a few more searches each month. In October, 23% of U.S. Web searchers did at least one search with Ask, compared with 65% at Google and 53% at Yahoo, according to ComScore.
Where Ask lagged behind was in search frequency. Its average user conducted 10 searches during the month, compared with 29 for Google and 22 for Yahoo.
AskCity, at city.ask.com, is key to the strategy to raise search volume, Lanzone said. In addition to information from IAC properties, the service culls information from other websites, as well as links to movie tickets on Fandango and restaurant reservations on OpenTable.
Greg Sterling, an analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, said he was impressed by the site's design, the richness of its data and the ingenuity of its features, including the ability to draw or write on a map and send it by e-mail. "It moves them into the top tier of local search providers," he said.
But Sterling and other analysts noted that many Web searchers are set in their ways, and it's unclear whether AskCity will get them to use Ask more often.
"Time will tell if [Ask] will be able to overcome that challenge and bump up their market share to closer to the first- and second-place contenders," said Mike Boland of Kelsey Group.
But Diller is pleased with Ask's progress.
"I don't expect what we will do is replace Google's position. That's foolishness," he said.
"Ask has been growing steadily since February," Diller said. "So long as it continues to do that, I'll be happy enough."