Ask.com, the Internet search engine owned by IAC/InterActive Corp, is seeking some human help answering web surfers' questions.
The company has begun testing a new service that lets users of its search engine submit questions to other Ask.com visitors, tapping into the powerful social networking trends that are increasingly gaining popularity on the Web.
The new service represents a striking shift for the company, which like most Internet search engines has long sought to distinguish itself based on the brawn of its computer algorithms.
But with only 3.6 percent share of the U.S. search market in June according to analytics firm comScore, Ask.com is looking for ways to differentiate itself from rivals Google Inc, Yahoo Inc and Microsoft Corp.
Google had a 62.6 percent share of the U.S. search market in June, while Yahoo and Microsoft had market shares of 18.9 percent and 12.7 percent respectively.
The new Ask the Community feature means the company will be able to provide specific answers to a greater portion of the search queries it receives, instead of simply displaying links to relevant web pages, explained Doug Leeds, President of Ask.com U.S., while demonstrating the new service to Reuters last week.
The service routs questions to other Ask.com users with expertise on various subjects and is particularly useful for subjective search queries which Leeds said can stymie traditional, algorithm-based search engines.
Currently available by invitation only, Ask.com's service follows the roll-out of similar social search and question-and-answer services like Quora, a Palo Alto, California start-up founded by former Facebook executives.
In February, search giant Google acquired Aardvark, which also offers a social search service, for an undisclosed sum.
But Ask.com is the first major search engine to integrate an online question-and-answer service directly into its flagship search product.
Leeds acknowledged that the new question-and-answer service might not provide the same immediate money-making opportunity as traditional, computer-generated Web searches, in which Ask.com sells special search-based advertisements alongside search results.
But he said he expected that the new service will increase overall searching on Ask.com, as people turn to its traditional search engine to find more information about products and other items that are recommended by people through the Q&A service.
(Reporting by Alexei Oreskovic; editing by Carol Bishopric)