Oakland (from a distance) – Earth calling new Oaklanders in Downtown Oakland City Center: take your head out of your smartphone for a minute (unless you’re reading Oakland News Now) and look up. See that building with the “Ask.com” logo on it, at the top of 555 12th St? Well, that’s a tech company. In fact, it’s probably Oakland’s oldest “modern age” tech company (and by that, I mean a software business-to-consumer web-and-app-based tech firm and not a hardware tech firm).
For some reason borne of the institutional racism that has plagued Oakland for much of its postwar life, many in Oakland don’t seem to realize that our city has a number of tech companies, and Ask.com, now known as Ask Media Group, is right there in the collective face of Oaklanders. All you have to do is look up.
Take this Twitter exchange I saw and that started October of 2019:
Is Pandora the only large tech company operating out of Oakland?
— Kimberly Bryant (@6Gems) October 23, 2019
But what’s Ask.com, you may wonder?
Ask.com was one of the first search engines – and its still active today. In a world currently dominated by Google, and with Bing and Yahoo mere afterthoughts, it’s easy to forget (or if you’re 18 years old, you may not know) that there were once many more search engines. Ask was one of them.
Ask.com was originally AskJeeves.com, and was a platform made in Berkeley by Gary Chevsky, who eventually held the title of “VP of Engineering and Founding Architect”. As Gary reports on his Linkedin page, he was:
“Founding architect and employee #1.
Growth path: Architect & Principal Developer -> Chief Architect -> Director of Engineering -> Sr. Director of Engineering -> VP of Engineering. Responsibilities included Question-Answering Technologies, NLP, Web Development for all Ask.com global sites, and Vertical Search Technologies.
As the first engineer, I single-handedly built all of the initial software for the company.
The AskJeeves.com site was further developed by Garrett Gruener, David Warthen, and Justin Grant, and launched in 1997, and such that was that its users could search in plain English. I found this account written in 2006, on the website WebSearchWorkshop.co.uk:
Ask Jeeves had always been amongst the most popular search engines and, now as just Ask, continues to fight for market share against the ‘big 3’ of Google, MSN Search and Yahoo! However, the results presented by Ask Jeeves have varied in quality over time. Initially it presented a combination of results from a human-edited list of prominent sites, paid listings and search results pulled from a combination of search partner sites. In recent years Ask Jeeves had developed its own search technology, following their acquisition of Direct Hit in January 2000 and then Teoma at the end of 2001.
By owning some advanced search technology, Ask.com has now developed a more impressive search engine that presents a stronger set of search options and results, although it does currently place a lot of emphasis on sponsored listings as well (from Google AdWords). However, according to Ask.com, the introduction of the Teoma powered search results after 2001 led to a 25% increase in user satisfaction and the company has built on this to develop more search functionality, including an image search engine and desktop search tool.
Ask / Ask Jeeves has seen strong financial growth in recent years which has funded its acquisition of other companies, including the owner of websites such as Excite and iWon. As noted above, February 2006 marked the point where Ask Jeeves decided to drop their long-established branding of ‘Jeeves the butler’ in order to relaunch the search engine as a more focused search experience along the lines of Google. Time will tell if this is the correct strategy and leads to a growth in their share of the search market.
I was a frequent user of AskJeeves, then, and not only for that ease of use reason, but that the founders elected to be a pioneer and locate AskJeeves.com in Downtown Oakland.
AskJeeves.com was one of the first businesses to occupy then-new Oakland City Center. Built by Bramalea Development Company’s Glenn Issacson, the 30-block Downtown Oakland office center was built under a plan formed and financed by the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, and using land once occupied by a giant neighborhood of run-down Victorian homes and buildings.
At the time, Oakland’s downtown was said to have “no there, there”, borrowing a terrible-but-true-at-the-time comment made by Gertrude Stein, the writer who was raised in Oakland before the turn of the 20th Century, and picked up by restaurateur Steve Wuebbens who opened an eatery named after her in City Center. The Downtown Oakland of the 1990s had little other than Geofrey Peete’s nightclub “The Inner Circle”, Steve Lowe’s Old Oakland complex (an effort to retain some of Downtown Oakland’s past charm), the new Oakland City Hall (rebuilt after the Loma Piereta Earthquake), and a fair number of hole-in-the-wall bars. Fine dining options were few. Good housing options, equally scarce. It was in this environment that AskJeeves.com elected to locate its headquarters.
The history of AskJeeves.com and how it became Ask.com is a tour of the growth of tech in the first decade of the 21st Century. The site, fun to use when it was up, went through a number of fits and starts in its growth path, and was eventually sold to Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp for $2 billion in 2005.
So, Ask.com has been just sitting their in Downtown Oakland almost completely ignored, save by Oaklanders who really know the City, and even though it’s in your face. Why? I think it’s due to the media-driven and very racist ideas about Oakland (crime reports flood the news feeds daily), so regularly pumped into our brains, many don’t stop to question them, as if we’re in the Matrix. The basic unspoken but regularly express idea in San Francisco and Oakland traditional local media is that “black” Oakland can’t ever have been part of the story of the growth of tech as we know it today. It’s like all of the fake news around the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, Phil Tagami, and Insight Terminal Solutions. Well, here’s Oakland News Now to knock that bullcrap out of your head.
Anyway, Ask is now Ask Media Group, but the Ask logo is still visible in Downtown Oakland City Center. All you have to do is look up.
Zennie Abraham is the CEO of Zennie62Media