Decrypting Ask’s Web Search API


In this article, we set out to document the little known Ask web search API available at xml..com.

One of the many aspects of successful (SEO) is the periodic measurement of how well a site is performing in a particular search engine. Dimensions to measure include the number of pages in the engine’s index, the number of other web properties citing the site and the site’s performance for the strategic linked to business objectives. Once raw data is collected, each of these data points is compared with other data to evaluate aspects such as page freshness.

Note Update: Ask disabled access to their API on 6 March 2007. We are working on obtaining additional information. Write us if you would like to be notified of further developments.

The first SEO practitioners resorted to writing rudimentary programs which simulated an internet search, capturing and processing the resulting data for analysis using spreadsheet or database programs. This process is known as scraping.

Several industrious software companies perfected this process in tools such as Web Position and Agent Web Ranking. Unfortunately, frequent automated querying can tie up search engine resources, degrading performance for interactive users and ultimately costing money. Many search engines explicitly ban the use of these tools for this, and perhaps other, reasons.

Each of the major search engines has created well documented application programming interfaces (Google Web Search API, Yahoo Web Search API, Microsoft Web Search API) as a means to provide search engine optimization practitioners with search engine data in a controlled manner so as to not impact search engine performance.

Teoma Logo

Except Ask. Which is really too bad. We want to love Ask. Ask’s underlying search technology is based on the well regarded Teoma subject-specific popularity cluster algorithm known as ExpertRank. The user search interface was recently (February 2006) cleaned up – the butler was sent into retirement and the number of advertisements displayed was reduced (making those displayed more effective in the process). Ask has also committed to Europe by opening a research center in Pisa (home of the historic Arianna search engine) and by releasing new country localizations in Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy.

And while we love Google, viable competition keeps everyone nimble. Yes, does a good job, but it seems that they sometimes let commercial considerations detract from a relentless goal of excellent search, i.e. with “express inclusion” and paid programs. Microsoft, much as they try, and despite their financial resources, just doesn’t seem to be a contender to Google’s throne.

Thus we turn our attention to Ask, our scrappy underdog. During development of our internal search engine optimization measurement tools, we didn’t find any mention of a web services search API on Ask’s website. Yet with a bit of research, we did come across an interface (xml.teoma.com) developed by Teoma which is still active at the time of this writing.

Part II: API Documentation

Consult our Ask Web Services API Documentation.

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About Sean Carlos

Sean Carlos is a digital marketing consultant & teacher, assisting companies with their Search (SEO + SEA = SEM), Social Media & Digital Media Analytics strategies. Sean first worked with text indexing in 1990 in a project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since then he worked for Hewlett-Packard Consulting and later as IT Manager of a real estate website before founding Antezeta in 2006. Sean is an official instructor of the Digital Analytics Association and collaborates with the Bocconi University. He is Chairman of the SMX Search and Social Media Conference, 12 & 13 November in Milan. He is also a co-author of the Treccani encyclopedic dictionary of computer science, ICT & digital media. Born in Providence, RI, USA, Sean received Honors in Physics from Bates College, Maine. He speaks English, Italian and German.

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