Happy Birthday, Ask Jeeves!

Ask Jeeves, an online question answering service that has gradually morphed into a search engine, officially launched its site six years ago.

Jeeves was the brainchild of venture capitalist Garrett Gruener and technologist David Warthen. From the start, Jeeves was different than the other search services of the day.

The idea behind Jeeves was not to create yet another search engine or directory, but to offer a question-answering service — a virtual online concierge.

The askjeeves.com domain was created on Wed, November 29th, 1995, shortly before AltaVista had its public launch. Yahoo, though popular, was still a small operation, hosted on servers provided by the web’s major powerhouse of the time, Netscape.

Gruener and Warthen thought P.G. Wodehouse’s butler character “Jeeves” embodied the idea of service they envisioned. Several artists submitted sketches, and the illustration created by Marcos Sorenson became the public face of Jeeves.

Meanwhile, work began on the search service. Though widely touted as a “natural language” search service, in reality Ask Jeeves was more of a massive database of questions, matched up with web pages that provided “answers” to the questions.

An editorial staff built the question database and selected the web pages that “answered” the questions, so at the outset Jeeves provided a very different information discovery experience than the search engines and directories of the day.

Ask Jeeves officially launched on April 7, and sold an initial public offering of shares in July 1999. The company embarked on several expensive marketing campaigns, including floating the first Internet “character” as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon.

Ask Jeeves’ popularity increased quickly, with the site becoming a top-25 web destination by early 2000, according to web measurement company Media Metrix.

Like many web search services, as Jeeves grew in both size and popularity it experienced troubles. As its question database expanded into the millions, some of the answers became less relevant. To gain additional revenue, the company began accepting sponsorships for some questions. It also morphed into a pseudo meta-search engine, with some “answers” provided by search providers like Dogpile and About.com.

In another mis-step, the company neglected to ask Jeeves’ creator for permission to use the likeness of the character. A.P. Watt, the literary agent responsible for Wodehouse’s estate, had threatened legal action against Ask Jeeves. A settlement was reached in early 2000, though neither side disclosed details.

By late 2000, the company was struggling. In an effort to get back on track, the company named Skip Battle, an experienced management consultant as CEO, and cut a large part of its staff.

Ask Jeeves has since experienced a turnaround. In its short lifetime, Ask Jeeves has acquired several companies, including Direct Hit, eTour, Net Effect Systems, and perhaps most notably, the search engine Teoma. Over the past couple of years, Jeeves has reaffirmed its commitment to search, and has resumed its growth.

In addition to its flagship Ask Jeeves site, the company runs AJ Kids, Ask.co.uk, and Teoma.com. Beginning this spring, the company plans to launch an aggressive marketing campaign.

Ask Jeeves

Ask Jeeves Web Properties Story
The official corporate history of Ask Jeeves.

Ask Jeeves Beta Site
Ask Jeeves home page on December 19, 1996, from the Internet Archives.

Ask Jeeves Shortly after rollout
Ask Jeeves home page on April 12, 1997, shortly after its official launch, from the Internet Archives.

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